Luke 16:18 “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Marriage is still very popular, and the majority of people who get married stay married and keep their marriage vows, but the fact of marriages ending is sadly familiar; divorce is as common as it was in our Lord’s day. Quite a number of us in our congregation have been divorced, and so there is personal and perhaps fearful interest in what the Bible teaches about this subject, especially what the Lord Jesus taught about it, because for us Christians he can say nothing wrong and we hang onto his words. These are his only words on divorce in Luke’s gospel, and they are the passage that is set before us today.
1. WHAT WERE THE CREATOR’S INTENTIONS FOR MARRIAGE?
Once some Pharisees came to Christ and they wanted to know his own views on divorce. They had a question for him; “They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ ‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate’” (Matt. 19:3-6).
So Jesus appealed to the first marriage, created by God and experienced by our first parents, Adam and Eve, in paradise. Then it was the only sinless marriage this world has seen; husband and wife were equal in their created state and privilege before God. Both could turn to God and talk to him at any time. They were one in dignity and honour and glory. To see one person who perfectly bore the image of God would have been overwhelming, even to angels. Then think of the impact of meeting two such beings bearing God’s likeness. We know that Gabriel and Michael the archangels are not made in God’s image, but here were a husband and a wife, and each of them in everything they did was as holy and kind and loving and righteous as God himself. They were competent and creative and industrious and sensible with just the right attitudes to themselves and the world around them – just as God has. These two were one in the image of God! What a partnership! What a team! They loved replenishing the earth and subduing it; he loved Eve as he loved himself. That union of Adam and Eve before the fall is our own marriage pattern. Theirs is the template for all our marriages. There was no possibility of divorce and remarriage with them was there? Adam was literally the only boy in the world for Eve, and she was the only girl. There was no possibility of remarriage. They just had one another for ever, and so I am saying that when it’s time for you to enter marriage then that is one great biblical example set before us all. You must think, “He or she is going to be my spouse for the rest of my life.” It must be for each of you as if there were no one else in all the world, no other member of the opposite sex in existence to marry if things didn’t work out in this marriage. There is no one else in the background. There was literally no one else for Adam and Eve to once briefly spot strolling through the trees of the Garden for a moment to whom one of them could give a second appreciative look and wonder if he could see her again. No one at all. So in marriage today a man will leave his father, as he is the only biological father he will ever have, and then he will cleave to his wife, and she is to be the only wife he will ever have. The two of you become one flesh for the rest of your lives. You stay married until you quit breathing. That is the spirit in which you enter marriage. There is no back door to get out if you are unhappy.
Our Lord Jesus lived in an age of easy divorce as we do, though every divorce is hideously painful and difficult especially for the children. I am saying that divorce was common 2,000 years ago even among the Jews. For example, the Mishnah said that the followers of Rabbi Hillel could divorce their wives if a woman merely spoiled a dish she was cooking for her husband, while the followers of Rabbi Abika could divorce their wives if they found another woman more beautiful than their betrothed. Jesus did not debate the question with the rabbinic traditions of the past. He set up his great ‘I’ and addressed the issue, “but I say unto you . . .” What he did was to call us back to marriage as it had been designed and purposed by God in the early chapters of Genesis, before the fall, one man and one woman, devoted to one another for life. So Jesus and his apostles’ views on the subject are what God has given to me to preach now, even though people I love, maybe people in my own family, might have got divorced There could be embarrassments whenever this subject comes up in Scripture; parents of divorced children might threaten to leave the church if I set out what the Bible teaches, but I would be a pretty mealy-mouthed Mr. Facing Both Ways kind of preacher if I was silent on this subject. Marriage was designed by God in the beginning to be the unbreakable union of one man and one woman, and I must remind you all of that fact without fear of the reactions of any of you.
But you wouldn’t expect God to set out marriage in any other terms than absolute terms would you? Consider the ten commandments; does God say, “try not to have another God beside me, but if you don’t like me . . .” or “Honour your father and mother, but if you get fed up with them . . .” or, does he tell us we can tell white lies, or that it’s OK to be violent with other people while stopping short of killing them? You appreciate that God is the God of absolute standards, and that with the standards he sets he gives sufficient grace to keep his commandments. There is a built in promise with every law. He never puts us in circumstances where there is insufficiency of grace to help us, or where our only alternative is a sinful response.
2. WHAT EFFECT DID THE FALL HAVE ON MARRIAGE?
The fall was not a little dip in the road of mankind’s journey. The fall was deep and dark and damnable with the most pervasive implications for marriage. Violence came in, and hatred, serial unfaithfulness and abuse. Men leave women and women leave men and so that commitment to live together with such husbands and wives for ever became impossible for some. A husband or wife might disappear; they have left the planet leaving no notification of where the spouse has gone. So divorce is introduced; it is necessary. It is a feature of a groaning world.
i] In the Old Testament. The only Old Testament law concerning divorce is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. It is not particularly relevant for us today, but I will read it to you so that you can see that it is God himself who made provision for divorce: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD.” The language is not as clear as we would like. What does this phrase “displeasing to him” mean? Surely it must mean more than being vaguely fed up with your wife? What spouse does not get exasperated with his or her spouse once a week? Or what is this “something indecent” referring to? The rabbis debated this passage at length and came to various conclusions some of them arguing that Moses permitted divorce for utterly trivial reasons. My point, first of all, is that it was God himself who made a provision for divorce making the separation of husband and wife legal, with a written certificate of divorce providing some safeguards for the wife and husband. So authorities were involved, and they had to pass a judgment on such matters as possessions and children and support.
ii] In the teaching of the Lord Jesus. So how does Jesus interpret this Old Testament law and bring its provision into the New Covenant? Let’s go back and see what Jesus said in Matthew 19, verses 7-9, “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Amongst the children of Israel in the Old Testament there was marriage breakdown – even with all the means of grace they had. They had prophets and priests and sacrifices for forgiveness. They had the word and the covenants. They had psalms of penitence and a knowledge of help from God, but still they had one great handicap, they had hard hearts. In their midst were men who fancied other women and grew cold towards their wives; there were also seductive wives with wandering eyes. They had violent men who were prepared to kill a woman’s husband in order to marry her, and if the author of the 23rd psalm could behave like that what would bullies and farmers and blacksmiths and soldiers and civil servants and also preachers do to their wives, or do to gain their friends’ wives? So divorce regulation was essential because of the problem of the hardness of the human heart.
I need to expand that phrase a little further. I am saying more than the fact that hard-hearted individuals initiated divorce. I am saying that Israel as the people of God went through spiritual lows, times of declension when it seemed to the prophet Elijah than only he was left loving the Lord in the whole nation. There could be periods of widespread hard-hearted rebellion against God and during those periods the marriage state nose-dived as it has in Wales in the last forty years. So God witnessed this and though he said he hated divorce he provided divorce to deliver abused wives and husbands who were locked into terrible marriage relationships.
So the Lord Jesus does not say, “No divorce for my disciples in my church.” He says in Matthew 19 and verse 9 that anyone who divorces his wife “except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” So he is saying that that divorce and remarriage on the ground of one’s spouse’s sexual immorality is not prohibited, and such re-marriage would not constitute an adulterous relationship, but rather it is marriage. That is one exception which the Lord Jesus introduces to lifelong marriage. He says that sexual immorality seriously disrupts that “one flesh” union of a husband and wife. When he says that “he or she marries another” he is allowing divorce and remarriage in the case of sexual immorality, in other words, someone who divorces because his wife has committed adultery may marry someone else without committing sin.
The word in Greek which is translated here “sexual immorality’ is the word ‘porneia’ from which we get the word ‘pornography’ and that would include any sexual intercourse contrary to the moral commands of Scripture. When such conduct has taken place then divorce is permitted – I am not saying that then divorce is required or necessary, but it is allowed. In fact, forgiveness and reconciliation, attempts to restore the marriage should always be the first option.
Let me emphasize the fact that when divorce was allowed in every culture at the time of our Lord – Greek, Roman and Jewish culture – it always permitted the right of remarriage. “Lo, you are free to marry another person!” Jesus was not merely allowing legal separation, but he was permitting divorce and remarriage. Continuing for ever after in an unmarried state – after biblical divorce – was not a situation envisaged or favoured by our Lord. There was always the right to remarry in the case Jesus spoke of. I do not think that the state of permanent separation is to be favoured. Let them finally divorce. If they are married then there are better ways of dealing with their alienation than permanent separation. That is not an option. It is either marriage or divorce.
Certainly what the Lord Jesus was doing was prohibiting divorce on those pathetically inadequate grounds that were being invoked all around him in first century, in other words, that the wife had displeased him somehow – a woman might ruin her husband’s favourite meal in her cooking, and he had divorced her over that. Wickedness! Or, more seriously, that he had come to fancy someone else and had written a bill of divorce and had given it to his wife and had shacked up with his latest flame. The Lord Jesus is saying that that new relationship was not marriage; that it was adultery. God does not count such cheap divorces as valid. The way Jesus says it in the Sermon on the Mount speaks of his compassion for the wronged wife. He speaks to the husband who has dumped a good wife, “You have made her commit adultery” (Matt. 5:32). You understand what he means by that. In the society of Jesus’ day it was assumed that a divorced woman would need to marry someone, because there was no generous handout from the government for single mothers. Here was a woman whose husband had callously and lightly divorced his wife because she burned the corn. There was no other woman involved, and the abandoned wife was in that day terribly vulnerable. She would need to marry for financial reasons and to be protected from evil men. Jesus is speaking to the autocratic cruel husband who has thrown out a loving wife for such wrong reasons, and he is saying, “Do you realise that your conduct has resulted, initially at least, in her and the man who has taken her committing adultery?”
Now you will see that in the text before us in Luke 16:18 our Lord Jesus doesn’t mention the exception clause, “except for sexual immorality.” Why doesn’t he say it here in Luke’s gospel? I reckon the most likely reason for its absence is that there was no dispute at all among the Jews or the Romans or the Greeks that a husband’s or a wife’s adultery was a legitimate grounds for divorce. There was no controversy over that issue whatsoever. Jesus is not speaking about that. His silence on that subject here does not mean that he is saying that there are no grounds at all for divorce. His silence is the silence of agreement with all mankind of the possibility of the wronged party perhaps choosing to divorce when there is sexual sin. Jesus is not denying or invalidating in Luke what he has taught more extensively in Matthew’s gospel where he has stated explicitly that adultery is a Christian grounds for divorce. So we have looked at divorce in the light of the Old Testament and in the teaching of the Lord Jesus. Now let us consider it in the light of the rest of the N.T.
iii] In the teaching of the apostles. Paul adds another legitimate reason for divorce in I Corinthians chapter 7 and verses 12 through 15: “If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace”
The apostle Paul is facing a situation not addressed by Jesus because our Lord knew of the letters written in future circumstances which would cover situations and marriage break up Jesus did not need to speak on in Galilee and in Jerusalem. He did not need to talk extensively about the fall of man because Moses had already written of that. He did not need to speak of the angels falling because both Peter and Jude would write of that in their letters. Here is the case of a woman who has heard the gospel and believed on Jesus Christ, but her husband is so far quite indifferent to the claims of Christ. Paul is saying, “Stay married to him, whatever you do. Don’t let your faith in Christ prevent you enjoying full married life with your husband. Marriage is not a sacrament; it is a creation ordinance, and there are great marriages in the world between two people that are not Christians, and also rich marriages in the world in which one spouse is a believer and the other is not, marriages which endure for fifty years or more of deep love, respect and delight while there can be struggling marriages between two Christians. If the husband who is not yet a Christian does not punish you who are his wife for being a Christian making life unbearable for you then you stay married. Peter confirms this, saying, “Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (I Pet. 3:1&2).
But, alas, there is the state when a husband hates the fact that a wife has been converted. He brings every kind of cruel pressure to bear on her to make her give up her Saviour, but when she keeps clinging to the Lord Jesus it is he who finally abandons her (I Cor.7:15). He will not live under the same roof as her again. She has not been unwise and provocative in her witnessing. She has not threatened to stop cooking any more meals for him, or let him into the marriage bed if he refuses to come to church with her and continues being a pagan. No. She has been the model of a wife, loving, patient, considerate about his needs, supportive and kind, but her husband still hates her love for Jesus Christ and he leaves her. He’s not staying and he’s not coming back. “Oh, no, no, not me babe!”
In those circumstances she is no longer ‘bound,’ Paul says. In other words, she is free to get a legal divorce and she has the freedom to marry someone else with the blessing of the church. In other words, when an unbelieving, hostile spouse has deserted the marriage, God releases the believing spouse from being chained to that man until her dying day. The chain has been broken by his action and she is free to remarry. She is free from life-long vain hopes of reconciliation. So that each time the telephone rings her heart leaps that it may be him telling her he wants to come back and that he has become a Christian. He may indeed become a Christian and he may rue the day that he left this lovely woman, but his action broke the links that united them. They are divorced and she has become free to accept a proposal of marriage from another Christian in the congregation whose wife might have left him in similar circumstances. She has been freed from a lifelong prohibition preventing her from enjoying the good blessings of marriage again. She is free!
Sometimes both husband and wife profess to be Christians and there is an estrangement. Then the pastor and the elders urge them both to behave in a true godly way towards one another. They are so addressed to repent and be reconciled, but one refuses – even when admonished by the elders and the whole church, and then he or she is to be told officially that they cannot continue to profess to be a Christian with any credibility while acting in this sub-Christian way. Their conduct is a heathen’s conduct and so henceforth, until there is a change, that defiant one is going to be treated as a heathen and not as a follower of Christ, not as a church member.
Are there other grounds for divorce? I think there might be, but I don’t find a lot of support for my views on this, and my examples are rare. I think that the reprehensible conduct which in some moral cases in the Old Testament was threatened with being punished by the death penalty would for me be grounds for divorce today. Certain cases I say, not cases where the social, covenantal and ceremonial law of Israel was broken, such as gathering sticks on a Sabbath. Not that. I am thinking in terms of murder, and terrible physical abuse of a man’s parents by a husband. They stand out. I am thinking again of a man who deals in death, for example, selling crack cocaine, or running a brothel. The converted wife may choose to leave such a man. I am not likely to meet such cases often. I would be sympathetic to those women. We all agree that no wife should be a punch-bag for a monstrous husband. Let us help her; let us find a refuge for her; let us consult a lawyer; let us consider the police. There are all kinds of intervention that the church will be glad to be involved in if its offers of help are requested and received.
3. WHAT IS THIS ‘ADULTERY’ THAT IS THE RESULT OF UNBIBLICAL DIVORCE?
What is Jesus saying in our text here in Luke 16:18? “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery.” Let us remember where Jesus talks of adultery elsewhere. I am thinking of the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus saying these famous words, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt:5:27&28). So by the definition of Jesus we are a congregation of adulterers, and the man standing in the pulpit is an adulterer, and your elders and deacons are adulterers. There is adultery of the heart. It is no ground for divorce, this adultery of the heart, but it is the greatest possible grounds for humility in a congregation when the church is faced with divorce in its midst. Remember the great words of the apostle Paul to the church in Galatia; “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” You occasionally read of a vicar who had been counseling a woman at a time of her marriage break-up leaving his wife and running off with her. What yourself! You also may be tempted.
In our text Jesus is saying two things. Firstly, as you had no grounds for biblical divorce then your new relationship began as an adulterous relationship, and we know that it begins in our hearts. But then secondly Jesus goes on to say, “And you married her” (in fact he says the word ‘marry’ twice in our text) so that Jesus is saying that this new relationship is a marriage. It is in fact a true marriage. Jesus does not say, “Now you are living for the rest of your lives outside of marriage.” Does he ever make that distinction, between being married and living together? Yes he does, when he spoke to the woman of Samaria, he says to her, “you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband” (John 4:17&18). But here, speaking to all his disciples in Luke’s gospel, Jesus does not say if a woman marries a man who has not been divorced for biblical reasons he will for ever be ‘the man she is living with,’ in other words, that this is not a marriage. No! He says, “You . . . are . . . married. He is your husband and you are his wife.” There has been repentance, not perfect repentance, but there is never perfect faith, nor perfect repentance, but there is a change of life which is acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. A second marriage has taken place. When did the potential adulterous relationship become a marriage? When the repentant spirit was accompanied by vows in the presence of the people of God. It would be a further grievous and irresponsible sin, to break up that union, for that would be destroying another marriage. You cannot undo one wrong by committing another. If you have remarried and you have made vows then you keep those vows for the rest of your earthly existence. None of the rest of us must think of that second marriage as a ‘sub-marriage,’ a ‘pseudo marriage,’ ‘not marriage in the sight of God.’ God in Christ says it is a marriage; it is not continuously living in a state of adultery. The man and the woman are married to one another. They are not married to anyone else. We do not tell them to go back to their first husband or wife. That is monstrous, cruel stupidity and impossible.
The responsibility of the husband and the wife in such a case, having asked God for his forgiveness for previous sin, is then to ask for his blessing on the current marriage. Let us all cry to God with them that he would bless this marriage richly, not as some masquerade of a marriage, a fake marriage. Not at all! Let us mortify such thoughts. Let us do all we can to make that marriage a blessing, and let us send anniversary cards and reassure them of our support and love. Let us do all we can to make the current marriage a good and lasting one. Let the husband and wife invite people to their homes and do what work in the kingdom Providence gives them to do from the basis of their married life together.
4. DOES DIVORCE DISQUALIFY A MAN FROM OFFICE IN THE CHURCH?
When Paul speaks of officers in the church, elders and deacons, he tells both Timothy and Titus that the officers they elect must be the husband of one wife (I Tim. 3:2 and Titus 1:6). People have taken that a number of ways. Some congregations say that they will not have a man as an officer if he has not been married. They argue that the necessary enrichment and education of being a married man and a father is essential for the full discharge of leadership duties in a congregation. That is a good point but I don’t agree that the verse is teaching that. Jesus was not married; we have no proof that Paul was married, and yet they had wisdom to help all kinds of people. Again it has been taken to mean that if a man has been married more than once he cannot become an officer. We ask what if he were the innocent party, abandoned by his unbelieving wife, even the victim of an adulterous wife? Some would say that it makes no difference affirming, “There is the ‘one wife’ rule in the pastoral epistles. If he is a divorced man he cannot become an officer in the church.” I do not accept that. There has to be the corporate wisdom of the church in knowing the case in point and the man as he now is. There can be no automatic embargo on a divorced preacher, and rules that a denomination may make declaring that to be ‘their position’ go beyond Scripture.
I myself take the requirement “husband of one wife” to refer to the present status of the man. It is saying that an elder may not have two wives if he is to rule in the church. Generally in polygamous cultures a man with a number of wives who is converted is encouraged to be a loving and caring husband to both his wives. He comes to all the means of grace, and he votes in church meetings, but he is not permitted to be made an officer in the church. I understand and appreciate that rule; that is how I would respond, but I think Paul’s requirement that the deacon has one wife is obviously dealing with a professing Christian man who, to our corporate shock, proceeds to take a second wife. If he does that he immediately forfeits his leadership in the church. He is subject to discipline as one sinning with a high hand and going against clear Christian requirements.
If there is sexual sin in a preacher then how has he responded to personal counseling and admonition? Is he honest about his fall? Does he resign immediately and from that day live a blameless life? Can his church say to the Christian world; “He was broken hearted over what he had done. He was full of godly regret for how he had betrayed his wife and family. Since that time we have no reason to complain about his conduct.” What if his marriage ended? Did he marry again? Then can he ever become a pastor again? I doubt it. If he has made so big a mistake in marriage then that would not encourage a congregation to think he has maturity in counseling and in giving words of wisdom in the other judgments of the ministry. Certainly he may help in a church in other ways, because there is far more to Christianity than being a preacher.
One concluding observation about divorce; there are those people in unhappy marriages who have decided to stick with their marriages. They have weighed everything up, and thought of the children, and they have decided to try again. They have found that their relationship got better. That may sound impossible in your situation but it can happen, especially as you please God, trust in Jesus, and depend on the Spirit’s power. Here is a letter from a wife who thought no marriage could be uglier than hers and then she read these words of Jesus, “all things are possible for those who believe.” She writes, “I decided to take your advice seriously. Yes with God all things are possible. I gave everything to God, in the name of the Lord Jesus and sure enough, everything started gradually to change for the best. It has been almost three years since that horrible nightmare and – praise to the Almighty – our marriage couldn’t be better. We are very close to the Lord . . .” There are others who simply could not continue stay in their marriages.
So I am asking are you sure that your marriage is over? Is your marriage dead? Is it really over? And even if it is dead, are you sure that it can’t come alive again? I know a Saviour who specializes in resurrection. You know him too. The Lord help us all in our marriages.
14th August 2011 GEOFF THOMAS