There is something about fallen human nature: establish a principle, a rule, or a law, and people start looking for ways to get around it. We try to come up with reasons why we are the exception to the rule. In Matthew 19:1–12, Jesus, when questioned about how broad or narrow a certain application of the law was regarding divorce, takes you back to the beginning of human history and points you to what the Creator did at the beginning.
Understand what the Creator did. God created mankind male and female. Jesus has left Galilee, traveled south with his disciples to the area of Judea, but on the east side of the Jordan. He has been busy healing the crowds that followed him. Some Pharisees were testing Jesus with a question about divorce. The motivation was to test Jesus, not to gain his wisdom. Yet Jesus does provide a substantive response. The question involves a misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1–4. The question reflected the division between the followers of Hillel (who allowed divorce for virtually any reason) and Shammai (who limited it to marital unfaithfulness). The first century attitude towards divorce seems to be reflected in the casual way marriage is often treated in our culture. Jesus reminds you that marriage is a creation ordinance. Jesus refers to God specifically as “the Creator.” Note how Genesis ties the fact that God created mankind “male and female” with mankind being his image. God is not a sexual being (he is neither male nor female–but is Spirit), but the rich, full communication that takes place in a good marriage grows out of and reflects the kind of communication that takes place within the Trinity and between God and his creatures.
Before dealing with the question of divorce, Jesus points you to how God made us. We need tthat focus as Christians today. We live in a culture that shows great confusion — and that confusion affects the church as well. In a LifeWay Research poll released last year, more than 20% of those identifying themselves as evangelical Christians expressed agreement with the statement, “gender identity is a matter of choice.” In our fallen world, sometimes people are born with genetic abnormalities. But, absent those relatively rare cases, we are male or female because God made us that way as he created us in his image. “The deep truths behind God’s design for heterosexual marriage demonstrate why the church needs to establish a positive theology of sex. The otherness of husband and wife, rooted in the proclamation that marriage is about Jesus and the church, is foundational to God’s design. This understanding is crucial for teaching our kids about biblical morality and for explaining our faith to those who do not believe.” (David White, God You & Sex: A Profound Mystery, p. 46)
As you look at the account of the creation of mankind, notice the activity of God. Instead of simply speaking humans into existence, he states that he is going to make them male and female in his image. The account in Genesis 2 shows God forming Adam from the dust and breathing into him, and he becomes a living being. Eve, similarly, is made from Adam. On the one hand, we are made of chemicals that are common in creation. At the same time, we are image of the Creator himself! Avoid reading back into the creation account assumptions about rule that are not in the text. The notion, floating in some supposedly Reformed circles, that women are ontologically inferior to men is not a reflection of Scripture. Men and women together are heirs of life. They together are called to use the creation to God’s glory. “Note the stunning omission in God’s directive: nowhere does he call humans to rule over each other! The man is not told to rule over the woman; neither is the woman to rule over the man. They are to rule together, in a duet, over all else God has created. They are to take the power God granted them and use it for good. Together. Genesis 1:28 continues with God telling humans to ‘fill the earth, and subdue it.’ Subdue means ‘to conquer,’ ‘to subjugate,’ or ‘to keep under.’ God created a one-flesh union and called that union of male and female to rule and subdue the earth, not each other.” (Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power, p. 5. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
Do not separate what God has joined. The first marriage was in the Garden of Eden. Contrary to some teaching (LDS), the fall was not necessary (and thus really a hidden blessing) for Adam and Eve to have children. In marriage, as God ordained it, the two become one flesh. In our sin-cursed world even the best marriage falls short of what God instituted. And, sinners that we are, we too often corrupt what God has ordained. We try to use, outside of marriage, what God has restricted to that state. We violate (by outward action, or even in thought and desire) the marriage vows we made in his presence. Keep marriage pure for God’s sake. Jesus forbids you to separate what God has joined together. Marriage is not just a custom. It is more than a social contract. Although marriage may be formalized by various customs in different cultures, ultimately it is God who joins the two together. The marriage service appropriately emphasizes what Jesus says. God instituted marriage, in part, to provide a picture of the relationship between the Lord and Israel, between Christ and his church. Moses regulated the practice of divorce. Jesus says that Moses permitted it because “your hearts were hard.” A certificate of divorce provided protection for a divorced wife. But Jesus’ focus is on the ordinance as God instituted it. No light cause, no “incompatibility,” but marital unfaithfulness provides the grounds for divorce. This is not the only passage of Scripture dealing with divorce. 1 Corinthians 7:15 makes clear that desertion of a believer by an unbeliever provides grounds for it. While all divorce is because of sin, that does not meant that in a particular case both parties are sinning. The Lord describes himself as divorcing his people, Jeremiah 3:8. Jesus calls you to strengthen your marriage, if you are married — for the sake of the God who created you and ordained marriage. Husbands and wives, cherish and nurture each other. Worship together, not only on the Lord’s Day, but daily. Pray with and for each other. Stay clear of any temptations which might drive a wedge between you and your spouse. Young people, keep in mind the likely possibility that God has called you to marriage. Keep the joyful desires God has given you for expression in the place which God has ordained for them–within marriage. As you seek a spouse, pray for and seek one that shares your commitment to the Lord and to the values of his Word. Perhaps you’ve been married, but are now single. Encourage the couples you know in the commitment to which God has called them. Pray for them. Ask how you, as a single person, can glorify God. All of you, guard the influences which affect you. Beware of entertainment that cheapens what God calls holy and good. Resist a culture that treats marriage casually.
Married or single, glorify God! Put the kingdom of heaven first. The disciples grasp at least something of the sweeping nature of what Jesus is saying. Their reaction is: wouldn’t it be better to remain single? It’s not that they were necessarily looking for reasons for divorce, but the idea of limiting it to very narrow grounds was scary. God’s people are called to live in a variety of situations. Jesus speaks of some who are eunuchs from birth. These are people who are eunuchs due to a congenital condition. There are also made eunuchs by men. In that period it was not infrequent for men to be castrated by someone else in authority. The third group (literally “have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven”) uses the term figuratively. It refers to those who have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom. Paul is an example of this, and, particularly in times of persecution and suffering, he recommends it in 1 Corinthians 7. Being single is not necessarily a more holy or desirable condition. But some Christians are given the gift of being single in order to serve in a particular way. (Admittedly, the gift of being single is one that many single Christians struggle with!) Jesus does not set up a new social order. Rather, he presupposes a situation in which marriage is normal and operative. But Jesus calls you to subject everything, including your sexuality and marriage, to his kingdom. Sometimes Christians have made an idol out of marriage, almost coming up with our own version of the health and wealth gospel, promising young people that if they toe the line while single, they are going to have wonderful, joyful marriages. That runs the danger of taking the focus off of Christ and puts it on ourselves.
Live by God’s grace. Jesus’ response to his disciples states that “not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given,” verse 11. Note the emphasis on gift. Jesus is telling you that it takes God’s grace to live in a way that glorifies God. You can’t do it in your own strength. It is given to you. It takes God’s grace to remain single for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. It takes his grace to learn to be content, to sublimate your desires and joys to the service of your Lord. But it also takes God’s grace to be married, to live in the self-sacrificing way that Christ patterns for you. It takes God’s grace to keep together what God has joined together. You can’t do it in your own strength. The good news is that God’s grace has been given to you in the Lord Jesus Christ. Remember, God established marriage to point to the great mystery of Christ and his bride, the church. “Our ultimate hope is that God is a covenantal, promise-keeping God. Marriage is a relationship based entirely on promises and public, binding oaths. The promises made between husband and wife to remain faithful, no matter what comes and to forsake all others, is a picture of God’s incredible commitment to us.” (David White, God You & Sex: A Profound Mystery, p. 49) One of the reasons that Christ left Galilee and went to Judea (stopping to teach in the trans-Jordan area, verse 1) was that he was on his way to Jerusalem to suffer and die for your sins. As God’s people we come with our sinful, broken lives. We confess that we have not been as faithful in maintaining our marriages as we should. We confess our sins in the area of sexual relations. When we have taken the most beautiful relationship God has made, and corrupt it, we end up with something ugly and cheap. (And even though there is forgiveness, there may be lasting consequences to our actions.) We come to Christ as hurting people, living in a sin cursed world. Some our suffering is the result of our own sin. But some comes from living in this broken world. Some may be hurting because they have been abused as children. Some have been abused, betrayed and/or abandoned as adults. Christ suffered and died to forgive your sins, including sins in the area of sexual relationships and marriage. The Savior who healed the crowds in the trans-Jordan offers grace and healing to you as well.
When it comes to keeping together what God has joined, when it comes to living in a way that honors God—whether married or single— good intentions are not enough. You need God’s grace in Jesus Christ. And he can take our messed-up, broken lives and make them glorious, so that they focus on him and his kingdom.