How to Stay Married: If people matter so much to God, it only makes sense that God would care about how we treat one another in marriage. But this is a broken world. And sometimes, the most difficult people to love is the person you promised to love no matter what. So how do we do this? How do we stay married (if we’re married) or think about marriage if, one day, we might get married? And how does this relate to being single? Recorded on July 31, 2022, on Matthew 5:27-32, by Pastor David Parks.
This message is part of our sermon series “The Unexpected Way,” from the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew 5-7 in the Bible. The way of Jesus is totally unique; it’s different from every other way of life, philosophy, or religion. Why? Because the teaching of Jesus — emphasizing holiness, humility, justice, faith, and sacrificial love — leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic. This ancient ethic, if actually practiced, has the power to bring abundant love and joy and peace to anyone, anywhere today. This is the way.
All year, we’re focusing on Learning the way of Jesus, which means basically all year, we’ll be answering the big question, “If the gospel is true, how then should we live?” To start, we’ve been working through a very famous teaching of Jesus known as the Sermon on the Mount in a sermon series called, The Unexpected Way. The teaching of Jesus leads to a whole new gospel-centered ethic. But this way of life is really unique. The way of Jesus is just a radically different way from every other philosophy or religion in the world. Last week, we considered the value of human life and the key Biblical principle that people matter to God. And we saw that if people matter to God, then of course people should matter to us as well. But if this is how God cares for us, then the way we think about others and the way we treat others would really matter to God. Jesus dramatically raises the bar for us, saying that how we treat other people actually matters more to God than even our worship of him. We said that this was the first of six examples that Jesus gives about what it really means to be a good person. Today, we’ll consider the second and third examples of Jesus in the area of marriage and divorce. And this is only a logical extension of the principle from last week. If people matter so much to God, it only makes sense that God would care a great deal about how we treat one another in marriage. But this is a broken world. And sometimes, the most difficult people to love are the people you promised to love no matter what (for better/worse, for richer/poorer, in sickness/health). So how do we do this? How do we, as followers of Jesus, stay married (if we’re married) or at least think about marriage if, one day, we might get married? And how does this relate to being single? There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s jump in. If you have a Bible/app, please open it to Matthew 5:27.
Matthew 5:27-32 (NIV), “27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Again, just like last week, Jesus shows us that an OT Law, in this case, the law against adultery, which is the seventh commandment in the Ten Commandments, has an underlying principle that goes way beyond what the Law simply prohibits. But this underlying principle, rooted in God’s character, is how God intends for human beings to actually live. Last week it was that God doesn’t want a people/society that only avoids murdering each other, but one in which people positively value/treat each other properly right down to the heart level. It’s the same thing this week for marriage. Let’s start again with v.27.
Matthew 5:27-28 (NIV), “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Ok, so here’s the negative commandment: You shall not commit adultery. Adultery simply is having a sexual relationship with anyone other than your spouse. It doesn’t matter if you’re married or not, if you’re sleeping with someone or even hook up with someone once, that person is not your spouse, and that goes against the seventh commandment. But again, Jesus says, “But I tell you…” So here again we can expect him to help us understand both God’s intention behind this commandment and our tendency to try and shrink the requirement of the Law to consider ourselves good people. And what does he say? Jesus says, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” So again, just as murder wasn’t really the issue last week, adultery isn’t really the issue today. The Law prohibits physical unfaithfulness in marriage, but God wants us to be faithful and true to one another all the way down to the heart level. Or put it another way, to not sexualize anyone other than your spouse. Now, I don’t think this means that you shouldn’t notice if someone is attractive. Some people are just attractive to us, either physically or in their personality or accomplishments. But attraction, just like other emotions, must find its proper expression. Just as anger isn’t necessarily sinful, but we must be extra careful not to sin when we are angry, so in the same way attraction isn’t necessarily sinful. The problem is when the look, when noticing that someone is attractive to you; when that becomes lustful. If you look lustfully, it means you start to picture yourself with them, or you develop a fantasy about them. I really don’t think we can help who we are attracted to, but we can certainly help what we do with that feeling. Do we act on our feelings or do we remember our calling to value all people, not looking at them as objects for our pleasure but as people to be loved and served with absolute purity as it says in Hebrews. Are we ruled by our emotions of attraction or do we remember our calling to be faithful in marriage?
But this is so different from the ways of the world. The way of Jesus is such a different way from our over-sexualized culture. However, the Christian sexual ethic has always been different from the world. It’s worth a reminder that in the culture of Jesus’ day, the expectations were in some ways more conservative but in other ways more permissive than today, but either way, they were very different for the husband than for the wife. Commentator Leon Morris writes, “In the ancient world generally it was held that a married man could have sexual adventures as long as they did not involve a married woman (which would mean violating the rights of her husband). A woman, however, was expected to have no such relations; she should be chaste before marriage and faithful after it.” [Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 117.] But this is not at all what Jesus teaches. He says it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman; everyone is responsible for this. Contradicting the culture of his day, Jesus specifically says if a man looks lustfully at a woman, he has committed adultery with her in his heart. He doesn’t say it matters if she’s married or not or what she’s wearing or what the circumstances are. I believe the way of Jesus was as challenging to people 2,000 years ago as it is for us today. The gospel connects in some ways with every culture, but it also challenges in other ways every culture. But here, as Jesus gives us his challengingly high view of faithfulness in marriage, right as we’re tempted to start making excuses or trying to find exceptions to the law or to shrink our responsibility in some way, he leaves us nowhere to hide. Look at v.29.
Matthew 5:29-30 (NIV), “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” Now first, this is another example of the hyperbole Jesus often uses in teaching. We saw this pattern last week, too. An unexpected, maybe shockingly high teaching of Jesus — which is as beautiful as it is almost unimaginably different than the normal pattern of life in this broken world — is followed by a most severe statement warning us not to miss this. It would be better to be separated from your hand or eye than it would be to be separated from God. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mt 16:26). Applied here, you might say, “What good is it to pursue temporary pleasure in exchange for eternal misery?” But second, this isn’t a suggestion or an opinion of Jesus. If he is the Son of God sent from heaven, if he is the Word of God, through whom all things were made, and in him is found life, and that life is the light of all mankind, then this teaching is what God commands of his people. And this is what will be judged in the age to come when all will stand before him and give an account of their lives to him. But finally, if this is truly how marriage is supposed to work, perfect faithfulness down to the heart level, then don’t you see how this would have huge implications for the practice of divorce? Look again at v. 31.
Matthew 5:31-32 (NIV), “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” If you have a very high view of marriage, and the emotional and physical commitment — actually the whole-life oneness that the relationship is supposed to embody — and responsibility for both the husband and wife to be faithful to one another, then ending the marriage must be difficult. On the other hand, if you have a low view of marriage with low expectations of what is required of the husband and wife, then it would follow that divorce should be easy, as well. Since Jesus raises the bar for marriage far higher than we would expect, it follows that his perspective on divorce is going to be pretty high as well. When he says, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” he’s quoting from the OT Law from Dt 24. But by itself, this law could (and was) abused, of course, nearly exclusively by the husband. There are stories of husbands in Jesus’ day divorcing their wives for all sorts of ridiculous reasons (not that that sounds much different from today). But back then, they felt it was ok so long as they followed the Law and gave their ex the right paperwork, a certificate of divorce. “It has been said…But I tell you.” Again, here Jesus clarifies God’s intention underlying this law. And what does he say? He only gives one appropriate reason for divorce, only one, and that is sexual immorality. Later in the NT, the Apostle Paul gives one other acceptable reason for divorce, which is the abandonment of the marriage by an unbelieving spouse. Domestic abuse falls under this exception, as well. But even so, these few acceptable reasons for divorce do not mean you must get divorced, only that it is permissible. For the Christian, divorce should never be the first or second, or third option when there is a conflict or difficulty in marriage. Even when permissible, it should only come at the end of a long and careful process, often with the input of other believers who are trusted and wise. But this also means that God fully expects us to keep our wedding vows. It doesn’t matter if at some point in our lives, our husband or our wife isn’t meeting our expectations. It doesn’t matter if we find someone better or are no longer as attracted to our spouse as we used to be. It doesn’t matter if your husband or wife gets sick or develops a condition that requires way more of your time or money. All those reasons are why we have to make a vow to begin with. A wedding isn’t just a celebration of or a monument to our current love for our spouse. A wedding is a promise of future love, regardless of what might happen, regardless of the ups and downs of life. And it’s a solemn promise, a vow, made before all your friends and family, before society, and before God himself, that two are becoming one in every sense (financial, emotional, physical, familial, and in every other way). This is how it was supposed to be from the beginning. Genesis 2:24 says, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Mt 19:6). For Christians, marriage is the whole-life union of one man and one woman for life; to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, til death us do part. This is what the Bible teaches. Of course, the Bible describes other types of marriage practices, from polygamy to affairs and more. But if you pay attention, none of those practices end well. Any other way ultimately leads to destruction, not to greater satisfaction or abundant life. In Matthew 19, Jesus says that divorce only was made as an allowance by God after the fall to sin. And this is part of God’s mercy. It would be cruel to force someone to stay married when their spouse was hard-hearted and unrepentant in cheating on them or abusing them. In these cases, the covenant is already broken, and they are no longer bound by their vows.
This teaching is heavy, isn’t it? Probably all of us know someone, maybe a friend or family member, maybe our own parents, or someone close to us who have had a marriage end badly, which means almost all of us know the pain/wounds which that can cause. At one point a few years ago, I realized that almost every one of my closest friends growing up was on their second marriage. That was a sobering thought. Or maybe we ourselves have not lived out this teaching well in our lives. We have not been faithful in mind or body; maybe we’ve struggled with pornography or had an affair or have just given up on our marriage. Just as Jesus’ teaching that people matter to God is challenging for us to obey, so is his teaching on marriage and divorce challenging for us to obey. This isn’t easy, this is very hard — but really, this teaching is also so very good. Why? Think about it. What kind of marriage would be best for the husband and wife? Or any kids that come into the family? Or for society? Or for future generations? Do we want the bar to be low or high for this most intimate relationship? I think we want the bar to be high. There’s wisdom here, there’s safety here. For me, I want a marriage where Holly and I are both fully committed to whole-life oneness, where we each have nothing to hide from each other, and where we serve and love one another completely. I want a marriage where we are careful to be faithful in body and mind, where temporary or fleeting attractions do not master us, and where we can regularly experience repentance and forgiveness when sin threatens to divide us. But the only way for us to have this type of relationship, to keep the vows we have made, and to stay married til death us do part, is by looking to Jesus. As Christians, we do not believe it is the quality of our marriages that saves us. This is not the way of salvation, but rather how we live in light of the gospel. And what do we find in the gospel? We find a God who has pursued us from before the creation of the world. We find a God who has loved us and has cared for us long before we ever loved him or cared for him or obeyed him. We love because he loved us first. Even when we were unfaithful to him, and our hearts ran after everything and everyone we foolishly thought might bring us joy or satisfaction or peace, he was still faithful to us. Now, by faith in Christ, nothing can divorce us from his love; nothing can separate us or keep us from him. And it is this, this divine pursuit, this holy and unstoppable love of Christ, described in the gospel and experienced in relation to him, that motivates us and changes our hearts to want to love others like this. Specifically, to be a spouse to our spouse like he has been a spouse to his bride, the church. One final question: what if I never get married? Will I miss out on something fundamental to being human? Is it wrong to be single? The answer is absolutely not. Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul were single men who were obviously faithful and lived full lives to the glory of God. Paul said he thought he had less trouble in life for remaining single (and that might actually be true!). If you desire to be married, that’s a good and healthy desire. If you wish to remain single, that is ok, too. Marriage isn’t the ultimate goal of God for human beings. But today, whether you are married or not, whether you will be married one day or will remain single, let us all be astonished by the unconditional love and faithfulness of Christ to us. Let us let that change the algorithm of our assessment of others, to change our mind/body/spirit in how we value and treat one another. Let us refuse to dehumanize people as objects for our pleasure and see them instead as people to be loved and served and respected. Let us find redemption and forgiveness in Christ for the ways we have not been faithful, or we have failed to keep the vows we have made. And may our relationships with one another, especially within marriage, be salt and light in a world of confusion, conflict, and heartbreak. Let us pray.