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Monday, October 2, 2023

What Jesus Really Said About Divorce

We are working our way through Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  Today our subject is a sensitive one:  divorce.  The experience of divorce is described by many as one of the most painful experiences of life.  It is something that affects not only the divorced couple, but also their children, families, and friends.  And just based on statistics, it’s likely half of the people reading this have been through a divorce or will sometime in their lifetime.

Jesus had some important things to say about marriage and divorce.  He spoke the Truth with genuine love.  Please know upfront that is my intention too—to speak the truth in love.  I’m not here to judge anyone.  I think if we really understanding of what Jesus said about divorce and how it should be interpreted in our world today, we will find an incredible amount of God’s grace and love as well as Truth that can change our lives forever for the better.

So what did Jesus say?  It is found in Matthew 5:31-32.

Matthew 5:31
“You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’ 

Jesus is talking about an Old Testament law in Deuteronomy 24 that says, “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her…” he can give her a written certificate of divorce and send her away. 

The Jewish religious leaders of Jesus day debated a specific clause in that statement quite a bit: “if he finds something indecent about her.”  What does it mean to be indecent?  There were two popular interpretations in Jesus’ day.  A famous rabbi named Shammai said the only indecency that could lead to divorce was a serious transgression.  For example if a woman was stealing her husband’s money or flirting with her neighbors or walking around exposing herself in public, this was serious indecent behavior that were grounds for divorce.  Another famous rabbi, rabbi Hillel said a man could divorce his wife simply because she burned his toast!

So the religious Jews of Jesus day generally grouped themselves into one or the other school of thought about divorce.  One said you can divorce your wife for almost any reason at all and a stricter belief that it had to be a serious offence.  I should point out here that it would not be necessary to divorce your wife if she cheated on you, because the Old Testament penalty for adultery was death.  So if your wife cheated and was put to death, no divorce is necessary.

But Jesus, who is God, says:

Matthew 5:32
But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery.

People has often used this passage to prove Jesus forbids Christians to divorce or to remarry after a divorce.  On the surface, that’s what it seems like Jesus is saying.  But if you only read the passage this way, you are misunderstanding the point Jesus makes.  Throughout this chapter, Jesus uses real-life examples to show people are utterly helpless to fulfill God’s perfect and holy Law.  Remember what Jesus said in the passage last week about lust and adultery?  If you even look at someone else and lust in your heart you’ve already committed adultery in your heart and broken God’s law.  And since hardly anyone can honestly say they haven’t ever lusted, we are guilty.

The Jewish religious leaders knew how hard it was for people to stay married to the same person their whole life.  So they were always looking for exceptions.  One group said “if she burns your toast, you can divorce her.”  Another group said, “No.  It has something serious.”  Jesus said, it was never God’s intention that anyone get divorced, and if you do you are breaking God’s law (see Matthew 19).  The point is, once again, Jesus is saying we are unable to fulfill God's Law.  That’s why Jesus came to fulfill the Law for us, to die on the cross to pay our penalty, and offer us God’s grace and mercy to restore our broken relationship with Him.  This passage is not directly about divorce.  It's about how Jesus came to save us from out sin.  He's using a practical example from life to show how helpless we are.

But What About Divorce?
Well, that’s a fine biblical theology lesson.  However, what we all still want to know:  Is it OK for Christians to divorce and remarry.  I get it.  Divorce is heart wrenching.  And genuine Christians who want to be faithful really struggle when it comes to divorce.

Methodists accept that divorce is sometimes necessary.  This is true of the two largest Methodist denominations—United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church.  And as far as I know, divorce is allowed by all the other major Methodist traditions of which I'm aware.  However, I want to state clearly that we believe this not in spite of what Jesus and the Bible says but because of what Jesus and the Bible says.  How can that be when Jesus clearly seems to prohibit divorce?

The Bible’s laws about divorce, laws that Jesus confirmed, were specifically designed to protect women in the ancient world against abandonment.  Since most women in Jesus’ day could not work to provide a living for themselves (unless they turned to prostitution), God did not want women to be abandoned.  So, God gave strict laws to forbid divorce so women could not be cast out and left destitute.

In a perfect world the way God intended it to be, divorce would not be necessary. A man and woman would be faithful and loving to each other their whole lives. But we all know we don’t live in a perfect world.  Sometimes divorce is necessary.  Sometimes, in our modern world, divorce is the way to protect women (and also men). 

Look at an example:  What if a man is abusing his wife?  There is no way in the world Jesus would tell that woman she must stay with her abusive husband.  Jesus’ teaching about divorce was there to protect women, not hurt them.  And this goes for mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse as well as physical abuse.  Jesus wants more than anything to protect the vulnerable.

And it also goes both ways—for both men and women—because Jesus wants to protect men too.  In our modern world where women can leave their husband and make it on their own, men need protection from abusive relationships too.  Sometimes divorce is the only way out of a abusive marriage for a husband.  And if Jesus was here today speaking to you, He would say the same thing.  So don’t let anyone twist what Jesus said to protect women 2,000 year ago to hurt women (or men) today.  God’s Law and Jesus’ teaching is meant to protect the vulnerable from abuse.

Now, that is not to say Christians should take marriage lightly or use divorce as a excuse not to work through tough marital issues.  Marriage takes a lot of work and faithful spouses should be committed to do everything possible to stay together if they can.  The truth is, divorce is so difficult and expensive and painful, I don’t think too many people out there take it lightly. 
Our goal should be to marry for life.  And I think two faithful people who are truly committed to each other and to Jesus can find a way to be together for life.  But it takes both the husband and the wife to make that happen.  And if it can’t happen and staying married is more harmful than good, then divorce is permissible—maybe even advisable.

In first Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul also taught about divorce.  He said if your spouse is determined to leave, you should let them go.  You aren’t bound to try and force them to stay.

There is much more that could be said on the subject of marriage and divorce than we can address in a general message like this.  Marriage and divorce are complex and every case is unique.  If you are struggling in your marriage or contemplating divorce, come talk with me (or find a good pastor or marriage counselor to talk to.)  Many times marriage problems that seem too big to be worked out can be overcome with a little help from a counselor.  And if your problems are truly cause for separation or divorce, a wise counselor can help you determine that too and you will have the peace of mind knowing you did everything you could to save your marriage.

We Live In A Broken World
We live in a broken world.  The Bible tells us our spiritual ancestors, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and brought sin into the world.  All of creation has suffers the consequences.  Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glorious standard.”  We see the results all around us.  There is sickness.  There is war.  There is famine.  Even our marriages fail because the world is not the way God intended it or wants it to be.  

That’s why Jesus came.  He came to fulfill the requirements of the Law when we couldn’t.  Jesus gave His life on the cross to atone for our sins.  Jesus rose from the grave to prove God’s promise of reconciliation and eternal life for all who repent and call on the name of Jesus to be saved.  So remember what Jesus did for us and follow Him as Lord and He will strengthen you to live for Him until we realize the healing and restoration of the coming Kingdom of Heaven.

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