The Heart of the Law, part 2: Marriage

Posted: September 4, 2011 in Matthew

Matthew 5:27-32, “The Heart of the Law, part 2: Marriage”

There are some subjects in the Bible that are simple to preach but perhaps tough to preach in love.  This is one of them.  Adultery and divorce are touchy subjects in the Church simply because it is so widespread (sad to say).  Obviously a line does need to be drawn on adultery & divorce, and Jesus does so here very clearly.  But what needs to be emphasized is that Jesus did not come to condemn, but to save.  What Jesus shows through the law here is that we are already condemned and in desperate need of the salvation He offers.

Jesus doesn’t downplay the law.  After all, the law is hard enough to keep according to the letter.  What Jesus shows is that it’s truly impossible to keep God’s laws both to the letter AND the intent (the heart).  And yet that’s exactly what we’re called to do as Jesus’ disciples & citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

Before we get too far, obviously we can’t look at the prohibition against adultery without looking at God’s original intent (and ultimate intent) for marriage.  Keep in mind that as a church, we cannot afford to get this wrong!  In our culture, the godly ideal of the family unit is falling apart & becoming more & more endangered by the day.  We wonder sometimes why the homosexual lobby groups have won so many of the political battles & gained widespread acceptance in our culture, and the answer may be found (in part) right here.  When the church itself forgets God’s intent for marriage – when the church treats marriage/divorce/adultery as casually as it does, it’s awfully hard to claim the moral high ground against homosexuality by purporting to “protect the family.”  It seems that Christians have by & large given up trying to protect the family a long time ago when we wink at heterosexual immorality, turn a blind eye to adultery & shrug off divorce.  When the church of Jesus Christ actually starts acting as our Lord has commanded us on these issues, perhaps our voice would carry a bit more weight (if it’s not already too late).

So what is God’s ideal for marriage?  One man – one woman – for life, submitted to one another and to God.  When any part of that equation falls short, we’re going to fall short of God’s ideal for us.  There are pagans that follow one man +  one woman, for life…yet they themselves are not submitted to Jesus Christ, so they miss out on the fullness of what God has in store for them.  There are Christians who follow one man + one woman, for life…yet they do not know what it means to be mutually submissive nor dwell together with understanding & they miss out as well.  Of course, the focus for Jesus’ words today are one man + one woman, for life…and for many people, that’s a tough enough standard as is.  Where do we see this in the Scriptures?

  1. Genesis, with Adam & Eve. (Gen 2)
  2. Jesus’ further instructions on marriage. (Mt 19)
  3. The analogy between Christ and the Church (Eph 5)

Question: have the people of God always been successful with God’s ideal for marriage?  Sadly, no.  There have been multitudes of mistakes through the centuries.

  1. Polygamous marriages. (Jacob, Solomon, etc.)  This was culturally acceptable, but it was never recommended in God’s law, nor was it ideal.
  2. Divorce.  This was allowed for in the law, but never God’s ideal.
  3. Adultery & immorality.  Obviously, this was never allowed, but still sometimes seen among God’s people.  Most famously between David & Bathsheba.
    1. The good news with this example is that even in adultery, there can be forgiveness when there is humble & contrite repentance.  (See Ps 51)  At the same time, there may be life-long consequences that follow.  David lost an unnamed son to death because of his sin, and experienced the treason of another son (Absalom) as a further result.

With all that said, in this next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us the reasoning behind God’s ideal for marriage.  Why are adultery & divorce wrong?  It’s wrong because the heart of God is faithfulness and purity.  God is faithful in His covenant commitment to us; we are to be faithful in our covenant with one another.

Matthew 5:27–32 (NKJV)
27 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

  1. Quoting Exodus 20:14, the 7th commandment.  Very straightforward.  This is part of the Law & Covenant that God made with the nation of Israel.  Yet don’t make the mistake of thinking that since Jesus fulfills the law that we have the right to go off and commit adultery.  The moral heart of this stands. God joins two people together in marriage, and it is not up to us to attempt to destroy that marriage through adultery.
  2. Adultery is a raging problem in our culture – and in the Church.  The Barna Research Group notes that 32% of born-again Christians have experienced divorce – as opposed to 33% of all adults in general…virtually indistinguishable (March 2008).  Considering that somewhere around 50% of the general population admit to participating in infidelity at some point, this doesn’t bode well for the statistics in the Church to be much different.
  3. Why include the prohibition against adultery in the law?  Shouldn’t it be obvious?  Not necessarily.  Women in ancient cultures were viewed as little better than property.  Among the Greeks and Romans, it was common for a man to have a wife for propriety’s sake & legitimate childbearing, but also to have other concubines for carnal pleasure.  Of course, it’s wasn’t just the Romans.  In the ancient cultures surrounding the Hebrews, it was common to see ritual prostitution.  The false god Baal was thought to consummate with the false goddess Asherah in order to bring rain & raise crops.  Thus ritualized prostitution was a common form of idolatry.  It wasn’t supposed to be that way among God’s people.  The people of God were to show themselves to be set apart from the nations that surrounded them & one of the practical ways to do that was to treat marriage as sacrosanct.
  4. Beyond the issues of the culture, adultery was forbidden because of how God designed marriage & His intent for it.  In Genesis 2, the man was supposed to leave his family & become one flesh with his wife.  God in creation had made one being into two; God in marriage spiritually makes two beings into one.  Matthew 19:4–6, "(4) And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ (5) and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ ? (6) So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” " []
  5. The question that comes up from the legalist is this: “OK – I know I can’t sleep with someone else.  But where can I draw the line of what actually defines adultery?  If it’s not actually intercourse, can it really be called adultery?”  The problem is that once this sort of questioning becomes our mindset, we’re already outside of the will of God for us (even if we haven’t yet taken any action).  A person truly walking as a disciple of Jesus – a child of God – desires to do the things that please our Heavenly Father.  That kind of heart change is evidence of a life transformed by the Holy Spirit of God.  Think of it – a hireling looks for the minimum requirements & tries to find out how little they can do before they get fired.  That’s the mindset of someone outside of the family.  Someone inside the family does things not out of obligation, but out of love.  They don’t look for the minimum; they look for what will bring pleasure to their loved ones.  The question isn’t “How far can I go to the edge without falling?” – it’s “How can I best glorify my Father in this situation?”  BIG difference!
    1. This is the attitude that Jesus addresses in vs. 28…

28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

  1. This takes things to a whole new level.  Adultery isn’t merely an action; it’s an attitude.  By the time the physical act of adultery has taken place, the mental act has likely taken place dozens of times.  What does it mean to “lust” after someone?  The Greek word translated “lust” speaks of an intense desire & could also be translated as “covet.”  In a sense, Jesus isn’t just addressing the 7th commandment against adultery, but the 10th commandment against covetousness.  When covetousness is put in the context of sexual relationships, we end up with lust.
    1. This tells us that Jesus’ description of lust is different than casual temptation.  It’s one thing to have an encounter with someone & have a thought pop into your head – it’s quite another to dwell upon that thought & consider the possibilities.  Temptation is normal.  Everyone is going to be tempted & temptation itself is not a sin.  Sin is what takes place when we consider the possibilities & allow those tempting thoughts to grow.  And of course that’s Jesus’ point.  The sin of adultery didn’t begin the moment two people slept together outside of marriage – it had begun much earlier with lustful adulterous thoughts & only grew from there as the person dwelt upon the possibilities.
  2. When it comes to the contextual issue of lust, our culture is saturated with it – ranging from Hollywood to our computer screens to poorly labeled “romance” novels.  Our culture specializes in the area of lust.  Lust is studied, gauged, and designed to sell everything from beer to children’s clothing.  Truly our culture is addicted to lust. Keep in mind that lust is not solely a male issue/problem.  According to one online poll of “Today’s Christian Women” readers, 34% of women admit to a problem with pornography (TCW, Fall 2003).  Of course, it doesn’t even have to be technically defined as “porn” to cause lust.  A person can leer at someone else fully clothed and still lust in his/her heart. Jesus comes right out & says this is wrong.  Lust = adultery.  Adultery = sin.  There’s no question about it – the only difference is one of degree.
  3. Objection: “Why is this such a big deal?  Who cares what anyone does behind closed doors?  Who cares what thoughts I’m thinking in my mind?  Who does it hurt?”  People might be surprised to know who it hurts – especially in the area of pornography.  Every single one of those young women on the porn sites is someone’s daughter & few (if any) of them ever start to participate in that stuff by their own free will & choice.  Not only are they hurt, families are hurt as trust is destroyed – even the individuals who engage in it are hurt simply because sin always leads to death.
    1. Most importantly, God knows & God cares.  The people we lust after in our hearts are individuals that God knit together in their mothers’ wombs.  He knows them intimately – He knows them by name – He loves them as their Creator & as their Savior, He died on the cross for them, too.
    2. Keep in mind that lust goes against the very character and nature of God.  Just as hatred is wrong because God is love & murder is wrong because God is life – adultery is wrong because God is faithful.  Lust is wrong because God is pure.

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.

  1. So how do we deal with the issue of lust & everything that leads to the physical act of adultery?  Simple: get rid of the opportunity.  That’s exactly what Jesus is talking about here.  Jesus uses extreme language (hyperbole) to make a point.  Obviously Jesus does not intend for us to walk around our towns physically maiming ourselves left & right every time we have a wayward thought.  Jesus purposefully used language strong enough to get our attention so that we’d do what it takes NOT to lust.
    1. Remember that even when we interpret the Bible literally we need to keep the proper grammatical forms in mind.  To recognize figurative language is to still hold to a literal interpretation because we’re recognizing the language for what it is & how Jesus originally intended it.  To take another example, when Jesus says, “I am the door,” (Jn 10:9) He does not mean that He is a piece of wood hanging upon invisible hinges.  He’s using a grammatical metaphor to figuratively describe an aspect of His character and work.  Likewise here.  Jesus uses hyperbole (exaggeration) to underscore the seriousness of sin.
    2. That’s becoming more & more important to do in our own day simply because people don’t take sin seriously.
  2. So what might it look like to symbolically “pluck out” your eye?  It may look different for every individual simply because every person has different areas in which they might be weak.  Some examples:
    1. Disconnect the internet
    2. Bounce your gaze
    3. Get help with accountability
    4. Throw away certain books, etc.
    5. Change certain habits (places you go, commutes you take, etc.)
    6. The idea is to do whatever it takes to stop yourself from lusting after another person with your eyes.  Job had made a covenant with his eyes, that he would not gaze upon another woman. (Job 31:1)  Or to turn it around to the positive – Philippians 4:8, "Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things." []  Do what it takes NOT to dwell on the lust, but instead fill your mind with what is good & holy & pure.
  3. What’s the danger if we don’t?  Eternal damnation in Hell.  Objection: “Hey – I didn’t think this was going to be a turn/burn message?!”  Don’t blame me – Jesus is the One who said it. J  That’s exactly the message He’s preaching here.  Those who give into the temptations of lust are in danger of being cast into Gehenna (Hell). 
    1. Question: “I thought Hell was just for the really bad sins.  Is lust really enough to send someone to Hell?”  Absolutely.  God’s standard is perfection.  The wages of sin (missing the mark of perfection) is death.  Sin earns an eternal death because even a single offense against an eternal God is by definition an eternal offense.  Those who break the law even in one point are guilty of it all. (Jas 2:10)  So yes – to break the heart of God (and the heart of God’s law) by committing adultery of the heart through our lust is to incur the eternal wrath of God.
    2. The good news is that the payment for that sin has already been made.  Jesus died the death that you deserved when He went to the cross.  Every act of adultery – every lustful thought – every sin is paid for in the single death of Jesus & His resurrection!
  4. What about for Christians?  What happens to Christians when they are the ones engaging in these sins?  Will they still be cast into hell?  No – praise the Lord for the cross of Jesus Christ!  Through Him we have forgiveness.  Jesus died for your sin 2000 years ago at the cross (and even then, He’s been eternally slain since the foundation of the world!).  When you surrendered your life to Christ as Savior & Lord, He forgave ALL your sins.  After all, He had already died for them – even the ones you’ve not yet committed.
    1. That in mind, beware that you do not trample the blood of Jesus underfoot.  Past forgiveness of sin is never permission to engage in future sin.  Are you acting like His disciple with the occasional sin (over which you grieve)?  Or are you acting like an unrepentant sinner who only occasionally seems to be Christian?  Examine yourself to see if you’re in the faith!

30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.

  1. Is Jesus just being redundant?  (Repeating what’s already been said.)  Not necessarily.  The results are the same, but the initial idea is expanded.  This principle doesn’t apply ONLY to lust (which is primarily visual – the eye) – it applies in every area.  Do whatever it takes to keep yourself from committing sin at all.  (The hand = action)
  2. What might this look like?
    1. Changing jobs
    2. Changing habits – even little things like your diet if your diet causes you to sin.
    3. Changing friends.
    4. Bottom line, everything we do & everything we are now belongs to the Lord.  If there’s something in our life that’s causing us to sin, we need to be willing to lay it down joyfully in order to walk in purity & grace.  Let the Holy Spirit lead you and show you where changes are to be made.  Then be obedient to His leading.

31 “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’

  1. Seems to be an expansion on Jesus’ teaching about adultery.  After all, if someone had committed adultery, the topic of divorce would not be far behind.
  2. What was the law?  The quote is actually from Deuteronomy 24, referring to husbands divorcing their wives, but then taking them back after they had already married someone else.  Contextually, it was an issue dealing with purity as the people of Israel were to be pure in the land to demonstrate the purity of God.  Yet for the issue that Jesus was addressing with the Jews of the day, the key part was why the initial divorce originally took place.  Deuteronomy 24:1, "When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house," []  The “uncleanness” is an uncertain reference today.  There were penalties for adultery (both in betrothal & marriage), so apparently this would be some sort of sexual immorality beyond adultery.
    1. The problem is that certain Jewish scholars had turned this into any casual problem, many times mirroring the modern concept of “no-fault” divorce.  If the wife over-salted the husband’s food, they might issue a writ of divorce, etc.  Whatever Moses had originally referred to in Deuteronomy, this was certainly NOT it.  God intended marriage to be a permanent covenant; to treat it otherwise was to throw God’s gift back in His face.
  3. Regarding divorce, there are some instances in Israel’s history in which divorce was not only allowed, but actually commanded.  (Ezra 10)  Was Ezra being disobedient to God?  Worse yet – if Ezra really was acting under God’s guidance, was God being hypocritical and contradicting His nature and commands?  No.  In these instances, there were other issues at stake…these were “no-win” scenarios.  Because of the sin that had previously led them to that point, divorce was the least sinful of the options.  Of course, that doesn’t make it ideal – in fact, it only emphasizes the face that God-sanctioned divorce is always the exception; never the norm.  Divorce may have been allowed, but it was never God’s perfect will.  See vs. 32…

32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

  1. Jesus gives one allowance for divorce: sexual immorality.  Note that Jesus did not say “adultery.”  The word Jesus used (πορνεία) is far more encompassing.  It covers everything from fornication to homosexuality to incest & more.  It speaks of any sexual licentiousness outside of the Biblical guidelines of marriage.  Keep in mind that Jesus had just defined lust in the heart to be the same sort of sin as adultery.  If lust = adultery, then sexual immorality (which is borne out of lust) = adultery as well.  If it needed to be clear to the generation Jesus was speaking to, it especially needs to be clear in this day & age.  Today we see dozens of scenarios in which physical contact does not need to take place for marital faithlessness to occur.  Emotional affairs take place at the office – old flames pop up on facebook – and of course we see the problems of pornography & much more.
    1. To take it to the specific issue of divorce & Deut 24, Jesus makes it plain there is but one issue that the law refers to when talking about “uncleanness,” and that is sexual immorality.  The law of God did not allow divorce to be treated casually with trivial matters.  Divorce was reserved for the most serious of circumstances because it is a serious action.
  2. Question: “Is sexual immorality the only Biblical reason for divorce?”  It’s certainly the only one that Jesus personally defines for us, but the NT does expand on this a bit to include abandonment by a non-Christian spouse. (1 Cor 7:15)  Paul exhorted the believer to stay in the marriage as long as the non-believer wanted to be married, but if the non-believer desired a divorce & left – the Christian was under no obligation. 
    1. In that context, a case can be made for divorce being a Biblical option in cases of physical abuse as well.
  3. Yet even in the broad category of sexual immorality, notice that Jesus never once commands divorce.  He merely shows what is allowed; not what is recommended or commanded.  Even in the worst cases of adultery, repentance and reconciliation is FAR better than divorce!
  4. What about remarriage?  From Jesus’ context, we know that there are some Biblical grounds for divorce.  Remarriage is undoubtedly an option in those cases in which the spouse is Biblically free.  The specific situation Jesus is addressing is marriage that ended in sexual immorality.  Casual divorces that fall outside of the Biblical grounds (as we often see today: “irreconcilable differences”) do not seem to be a justified case for remarriage.  In Jesus’ view, that would be causing the other person to commit adultery.
    1. Again, God’s heart is one of faithfulness and covenant commitment.  God does not casually break His covenant with us; we ought not break our covenants with each other.  (And marriage is a covenant.)
  5. Common questions or objections:
    1. “But you just don’t understand my spouse.  He/she is so difficult!”  Understand that you will never be able to change your spouse – that’s simply not within your power.  And God never expects you to change your spouse.  The only person you can change is yourself, and even then only with the help of God.  God’s will for you is the YOU would be the best possible spouse you can be.  Continue praying – you cannot change your spouse, but God can.  Perhaps your steadfast example is what will bring him/her to repentance.  (Which is exactly what Peter writes to wives, 2 Pet 3:1.)
    2. “What if I’ve married someone, but he/she/I never had Biblical grounds for the previous divorce?  Should we get divorced now?”  Two wrongs never make something right.  It’s one thing to break off an engagement (which ought to be considered far more often than it is); it’s another to destroy yet another marriage.  Keep in mind that if you’ve sinned, there IS forgiveness for those in Christ Jesus.  Receive His forgiveness & walk in newness of life from here on.
    3. “What about multiple marriages beyond a single divorce?”  Be careful here.  God’s whole intent for marriage is one man + one woman for life, submitted to each other and to God.  To introduce serial-sort of marriages is unwise and goes against the heart of what God has designed.  Staying single in order to prevent further sin may well be another example of plucking out the eye or cutting off the hand.

Honor God with our marriages!  He has been faithful towards us – we ought to be faithful towards one another.  When we make a covenant bond with someone, that covenant bond in marriage is for life.  Just as Jesus doesn’t abandon His bride (the Church), neither ought we treat our spouses casually or take them for granted.

God’s love for us is faithful (unwavering) – God’s love for us is also pure.  He loves us with a holy love – one which will be made clear in the wedding between Christ and the Church.  That’s the model we have in our earthly marriages today.  No joking around about wandering eyes or whatnot, but to extol the purity of marriages by staying far from even the possibility of lust.  Do what it takes to remain faithful – do what it takes to remain pure.

What if it’s already been lost?  Seek the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.  He died for you.  Whatever the sin, He died for that one, too.  Go to Him in humility & repentance & receive of the love and forgiveness He offers.  There is but one unforgivable sin, and it’s not adultery (praise God!).  That doesn’t give us an excuse to engage in it, but it does give us hope to those who have fallen.

Maybe today for the first time you’ve realized just how short you’ve fallen from the glory of God.  You had justified yourself in the past, thinking what a good person you were in that you didn’t outwardly sin like other people – but now you understand that sin starts first internally before it ever moves outward, and you’re just as guilty as other people.  Know this: Jesus is God in the flesh & He died for you, too.  You can be forgiven today when you repent & put your trust in Christ as your personal Lord & Savior.


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