Disclaimer: On Sunday morning at Capitol City, I preached from Matthew 5:21-32, covering (among other things) Jesus’ hard words on divorce in 5:31-32. This post is the second of two followups to that message, though I hope it benefits all who read. If you’d like, you can hear that whole message here. You can read the first followup post here.
As a pastor, I perform a lot of weddings. Most of the time, that’s one of the really fun parts of my job. I enjoy the families and the flowers and the fanciness. Far more than that, I enjoy getting to know and working with couples as they celebrate God’s work in bringing them together as husband and wife. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed working with all kinds of couples and performing all kinds of wedding ceremonies. But even as all that is true, its important that I acknowledge one thing: I don’t marry people. Even as I officiate wedding ceremonies, and even though I have the legal authority to declare two people husband and wife as an officer of a religious institution, I don’t have the power to marry one person to another. According to Scripture, only one person has the power and authority to marry one person to another, and he is God.
In Genesis 2:18-25, we see the first wedding ceremony, when God unites Adam and Eve in marriage. The Bible makes it clear that it is God who unites them; their marriage (and consequently every marriage) is his work. Adam and Eve’s marriage is God’s design, for he makes Eve from Adam specifically for Adam. Seeing Adam alone, God declares, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (2:18). God then parades all of the animals before Adam to prove that, in all of creation, “no suitable helper [can be] found” for him (2:20). So the Lord causes Adam to sleep deeply so that he can surgically remove Adam’s rib, from it creating Eve. Having made the woman, Genesis tells us that God then “brought her to the man” (2:22). The Lord walks the first woman down the aisle so that she can marry the first man; God creates the participants of the first marriage, officiates the ceremony, and even gives the bride away himself. Finally, God speaks the design of marriage into existence when he says, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This is the strongest clue yet that marriage is God’s work, for here we see that marriage is a union that no man or woman, no couple, and no pastor can create. It is a one flesh union, a physical-spiritual union between man and woman that is deeper and profounder than any man can affect. For two people, two fleshes, to unite and become one flesh, God must be the primary actor. To put it another way, the math of marriage is 1 + 1 = 1, and only God can do that math.
In the New Testament, Jesus himself echoes this sentiment. When asked about marriage and divorce, Jesus quotes Genesis 2 (“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife…”) before interpreting this himself, saying “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9). Our Lord himself says it: in marriage, God joins two people together. They don’t join themselves, as a pastor I don’t join them; God joins them.
With that in mind, we come to Christ’s words in Matthew 5:32: “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.” On Sunday, I mentioned that here Jesus is reacting to the divorce on demand culture that had evolved in the first century. The Pharisees and many others found justification for divorce in just about anything, and the exception clause Jesus offers here is his way of counteracting that. Jesus isn’t commanding divorce in the event of sexual immorality, he’s saying that if divorce is necessary in our fallen world, it must be limited to cases of marital infidelity.
But then he alludes to the primary principle of marriage, the one we’ve already stated: God is the main actor in every marriage, he creates the one flesh union between every husband and wife. Because God creates that union, only God is able to sever it. And God doesn’t sever it. When Jesus goes on to say that “anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” the basis for his statement is that her first marriage is still valid in God’s eyes. Even if the divorce is final and legal from every worldly perspective, it isn’t from God’s perspective. Therefore anyone who remarries after divorce (while their spouse is still living) is, in essence, married twice at the same time – that’s why the relationship is adulterous.
These are hard words. Even as I type them, I’m tempted to soften them or qualify them in some way. But we don’t get anywhere when we try to explain away, justify, or soften our sin. When I fall short of God’s holy standard in some way – and I do this, countless times every day – the best thing that I can do is name my sin for what it is, sin. When we are willing to do that, we will move from sin to repentance, and the Lord will be honored. Furthermore, when we refuse to name our sin for what it is, we miss an opportunity to treasure Christ and the gospel in our own lives. Every time we ignore our need for grace, we ignore the beauty and value of Christ. Jesus will only appear be a great savior if we first see ourselves as great sinners.
I’ll close here the same way I closed on Sunday: Be faithful, to the Lord and to your spouse. Whether you are unmarried, married, remarried, divorced, or some combination of the above, cling to Jesus and the gospel. And if you are married, seek the Lord’s grace to be faithful to your spouse. For all of us, our obedience to the Lord today is far more important than our obedience to the Lord yesterday…or last year, or fifty years ago.