And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 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’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 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. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.
I said last time that there are two ways to be compassionate and caring in relation to divorce—not at all meaning that you choose between them, but that we must pursue both. One is to come along side divorced persons while they grieve and (wherever necessary) repent, and to stay by them through the painful transitions, and to fold them into our lives, and to help them find a way to enjoy the forgiveness and the strength for new kinds of obedience that Christ has already obtained for them when he died and rose again. That’s one way to love. And I pray we will all pursue it. The other way to respond with care and compassion is to articulate a hatred for divorce, and why it is against the will of God, and to do all we can biblically to keep it from happening.
Keeping an Eternal Perspective
One of the reasons in the past few weeks that I preached twice on the dignity and worth and Christ-exalting potential of singleness is because I know that divorce throws thousands of people into that situation, many of them against their will. If we are going to stand for marriage as the life-long commitment to one living spouse, then we must be prepared to love single, divorced people with all our hearts and homes and families. And we must keep a clear, biblical, eternal perspective, and remind ourselves repeatedly that compared to eternal life with God, this earthly life—single or married, divorced or not—is very short. James says, “You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). If a person is going to remain single to honor his or her marriage vows, that perspective will be crucial.
God Makes and God Breaks
Last week I took the stand that if the most ultimate meaning of marriage is to represent the unbreakable covenant-love between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:22-33), then no human being has a right to break a marriage covenant. When the impossible day comes that Christ breaks his vow, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20), then, on that day, a human being may break his marriage covenant. This explains why Jesus does not settle for the divorce provision of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 (Mark 10:3-9), but says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9). In other words, since God is the one who decisively makes every marriage, only God has the right to break a marriage. And he does it by death. Which is why the traditional and biblical marriage vows have one and only one limitation: “till death do us part,” or, “as long as we both shall live.”
Four Crucial Questions
As you know, when a person takes such a stand on the inviolability and sacredness of marriage, and the illegitimacy of divorce and remarriage while the spouses are alive, there are many questions, both biblical and practical, that have to be answered. So what I want to do in this message is to try to answer some of the more pressing ones.
1. First, does death end a marriage in such a way that it is legitimate for a spouse to remarry?
The answer is yes, and no one has seriously questioned it. One key text is Romans 7:1-3:
Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (See below on 1 Corinthians 7:39)
In other words, Paul says that to divorce and remarry while your spouse is living is adulterous, but to remarry after the death of a spouse is not. I think the reason for this is that Jesus made plain that in the resurrection there is no marriage (Matthew 22:30). So if a person said it was wrong to remarry after the death of a spouse, it would seem to imply that marriage is meant to be valid beyond death and in the resurrection. But it’s not. Death is the decisive and eternal end of marriage. The spouse who has died has moved out of the earthly sphere where marriage happens, and is no longer married. And therefore the spouse on earth is no longer married. Therefore remarriage after the death of a spouse is not only legitimate, but speaks a clear biblical truth—after death there is no marriage.
2. Second, if a divorced person has already married again, should he or she leave the later marriage?
The reason this question comes with such force is that Jesus speaks of the second marriage as committing adultery. Luke 16:18, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
My answer is that remarriage, while a divorced spouse is still living, is an act of unfaithfulness to the marriage covenant. In that sense, to remarry is adultery. We promised, “till death do us part” because that is what God says marriage is, and even if our spouse breaks his or her covenant vows, we will not break ours.
But I do not think that a person who remarries against God’s will, and thus commits adultery in this way, should later break the second marriage. The marriage should not have been done, but now that it is done, it should not be undone by man. It is a real marriage. Real vows have been made and sexual union has happened. And that real covenant of marriage may be purified by the blood of Jesus and set apart for God. In other words, I don’t think that a couple who repents and seeks God’s forgiveness, and receives his cleansing, should think of their lives as ongoing adultery, even though, in the eyes of Jesus, that’s how the relationship started.
There are several reasons for why I believe this:
1) First, back in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where the permission for divorce was given in the law of Moses, it speaks of the divorced woman being “defiled” in the second marriage so that it would be an abomination for her to return to her first husband, even if her second husband died. This language of defilement is similar to Jesus’ language of adultery. And yet the second marriage stood. It was defiling in some sense, yet it was valid.
2) Another reason I think remarried couples should stay together is that when Jesus met the woman of Samaria, he said to her, “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (John 4:18). When Jesus says, “The one you have now is not your husband,” he seems to imply that the other five were. Not that it’s right to divorce and marry five times. But the way Jesus speaks of it, it sounds as though he saw them as real marriages. Illicit. Adulterous to enter into, but real. Valid.
3) And the third reason I think remarried couples should stay together is that even vows that should not be made, once they are made, should generally be kept. I don’t want to make that absolute, but there are passages in the Bible that speak of vows being made that should not have been made, but were right to keep (like Joshua’s vow to the Gibeonites in Joshua 9). God puts a very high value on keeping our word, even where it gets us in trouble (“[The godly man] swears to his own hurt and does not change,” Psalm 15:4). In other words, it would have been more in keeping with God’s revealed will not to remarry, but adding the sin of another covenant breaking does not please God more.1
There are marriages in this church that are second marriages for one or both partners which, in my view should not have happened, and are today godly marriages—marriages which are clean and holy, and in which forgiven, justified husbands and wives please God by the way they relate to each other. As forgiven, cleansed, Spirit-led followers of Jesus, they are not committing adultery in their marriage. It began as it should not have, and has become holy.
3. Third, if an unbelieving spouse insists on leaving a believing spouse, what should the believing spouse do?
Paul’s answer in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 goes like this:
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord [which I think means, I don’t have a specific command from the historical teachings of Jesus, but I am led by his Spirit]) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. [Which I take to mean that marriage is such a holy union in God’s eyes that a believer, a child of God, is not defiled by having sexual relations with an enemy of the cross; and the children are not born with any kind of special contamination because the father or mother is an enemy of Christ. They’re not saved by being married to a believer or born to a believer, but they are set apart for proper and holy use in the marriage.]2 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
So the answer of this passage is that if divorce is forced on a believer by an unbeliever, the believer should not make war on the unbeliever to make the unbeliever stay. The reason Paul gives for this is in verse 15b, “God has called you to peace.” I do not believe this text teaches that we are free to remarry when this happens. Some take the words, “In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved,” to mean: “is free to remarry.”
There are several reasons why I don’t think it means that:
1) When Paul says in verse 15, “In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved (or bound),” I think he means, “not enslaved to stay married when the unbeliever over time insists on leaving and sues for divorce.” He’s not saying, “The brother or sister is not enslaved to stay single—and thus free to remarry,” because Paul, the lover of singleness, would not have spoken of singleness as a state of slavery or bondage. It is very unlikely Paul would talk like that.
2) The second reason I don’t think he is saying the abandoned spouse is free to remarry is that he just pointed us in the opposite direction in verses 10-11, “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.” With a statement like that in front of me (“if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband”), I am not inclined to think Paul is supporting remarriage four verses later.
3) The third reason I don’t think he is supporting remarriage when he says, “the brother or sister is not bound,” is that Paul’s argument in the next verse (v. 16) doesn’t support that. It supports freedom to accept divorce peacefully, not freedom to remarry. Verse 16 says, “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” In other words, you don’t know, and therefore you can’t use that as an argument to create an ugly fight to stay married. So the words in verse 15, “In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved,” mean you are not enslaved to this marriage when your unbelieving spouse demands out, because you have no assurance that fighting to stay in will save him.
4) And a fourth reason for believing Paul upholds Jesus’ ideal of no remarriage after divorce while the estranged spouse is alive is verse 39: “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” So it seems to me that Paul and Jesus are of one mind that followers of Jesus are radically devoted to one husband and one wife as long as they both shall live. This ideal tells the gospel truth most clearly: Christ died for his bride and never forsakes her.
4. Fourth, the last question we barely have time for is: Are there no exceptions to the prohibition of remarriage while the spouse is living?
My answer is no. But I am very much in the minority of biblical students, and even among Bible-believing scholars and pastors. So let’s turn very briefly to Matthew 19 to see the main argument for the exception of adultery—that is, the argument that when there has been adultery against a spouse he or she is free to divorce and remarry. Matthew 19:3-12 is very much like the words of Jesus we saw last week in Mark 10:1-12. There are two main differences. The first one is in verse 9 where there is an exception clause: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Most scholars say that the words “except for sexual immorality” mean that if there has been adultery, the aggrieved spouse is free to divorce and remarry.
I don’t think that is what Jesus meant. There is no time to give the fairly involved explanation why. For that I refer you to Divorce & Remarriage: A Position Paper. In a few sentences, since Jesus does not use the word “adultery” here (when he says “except for sexual immorality”), which he uses elsewhere (15:9) in distinction to this word, but instead uses the word typically referring to “fornication” (see especially John 8:41), I think what Jesus is doing is warning his readers that this absolute prohibition against remarriage does not apply to the situation of betrothal, where fornication may have happened.
Matthew is the one gospel that tells about Joseph’s intention to “divorce” his betrothed Mary because he thought she had committed fornication. And Matthew says that Joseph was “just” in doing this, not adulterous: “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Matthew is telling us that Jesus’ warning that remarriage is adulterous does not apply to Joseph’s kind of situation.
This view is not widely held. And not all the elders at Bethlehem over the years have shared this conviction. That is why we do not make my own understanding the standard for church discipline, but rather a standard we can all agree on. This elder position is found in the paper called A Statement on Divorce & Remarriage in the Life of Bethlehem Baptist Church.
So the view that I have been explaining and trying to show from scripture for the last two weeks is mine and does not represent the official position of our church in all its details. The elders all agree that marriage, as God designed it, is vastly more serious and sacred than our culture makes it out to be. And we agree that, if there is any biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage, the grounds are only unrepentant adultery and protracted desertion. As with other matters, we live with each other in peace, in spite of this disagreement.
Our united prayer for the people of Bethlehem and those that we care about outside, is that we all recognize the deepest and highest meaning of marriage—not sexual intimacy, as good as that is, not friendship, as good as that is, not mutual helpfulness, as good as that is, not childbearing and childrearing, as good as that is, but the flesh-and-blood display in the world of the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his church. That is what we call you to. Display that. Tell the truth about that in your marriages and your singleness.
Keeping Covenant Through the Gospel
And we believe that through the gospel God gives us the power we need to love each other in this covenant-keeping way, because in Matthew 19:11, after his radical call to faithfulness, Jesus said, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.” And it is given to those who follow Christ. We are not left alone. He is with us to help us. If we have been sinned against, he will make it right sooner or later. And give us the grace to flourish while we wait. And if we have sinned, he will give the grace to repent and receive forgiveness and move forward in radical new obedience.
The gospel of Christ crucified for our sins is the foundation of our lives. Marriage exists to display it. And when marriage breaks down, the gospel is there to forgive and heal and sustain until he comes, or until he calls.
1 The imposed divorces of Ezra 10:6ff are an exception to this rule that is probably owing to the unique situation of ethnic Israel living among idolatrous pagan peoples and breaking God’s law not to intermarry with them. We know from 1 Corinthians 7:13 and 1 Peter 3:1-6 that the Christian answer to mixed marriages is not divorce.
2 I found Paul K. Jewett's Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace, pp. 122-138, very helpful on this passage.