What God Has Joined Together

November 1, 2013 Preacher: Cameron Arensen Series: Book of Matthew

Topic: Expository Scripture: Matthew 5:31–32

Synopsis: In an age when divorce rates have sky-rocketed and the traditional view of marriage is under attack, Jesus takes us back to the beginning and God’s original design. What does God think about divorce? If we know what he thinks about marriage, then we know what he thinks about divorce. In this message, Pastor Cam combines Matthew 5:31-32 with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:3-9 to explore this topic in a message entitled: What God Has Joined Together.


We are still in Matthew 5 today. In verse 20, Jesus spoke these probing words to his audience: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

In the rest of chapter 5, Jesus explains what he means by a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees by setting 6 different contrasts, each introduced by the same formula: “You have heard…but I say unto you…” In these statements he contrasts the Pharisees and their teaching and interpretation of the laws of God with his own interpretation and teaching of the spirit of the law and the greater righteousness which God desires.

Last week we looked at the first two, as Jesus took us beyond the letter of the sixth and seventh commandments to the spirit of the law, causing us to look deep within and see the sin that lurks in our hearts and minds.

Today we will look at the third of the six contrasts. Once again, Jesus is dealing with the seventh commandment and the sin of adultery. Here is what he says:

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Probing words, indeed. Later in the Gospel of Matthew, there is another passage in which Jesus expands this statement on marriage and divorce. I think it is helpful to consider both passages together. So let’s turn to that passage in Matthew 19:3-9 and read it:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

In both Matthew 5 and in the passage here in Matthew 19, there is a reference to the Law of Moses and the giving of a certificate of divorce. So it will be helpful to go back and see just what Moses and the Law said on the subject. Let’s turn to Deuteronomy 24:1-4:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.

What is the intent of this section of the Law? This commandment was given to bring order out of chaos. It was damage control. Men were divorcing their wives, or sending them away (which is the original idea of the word). When they did so, these women were in legal limbo. Were they married? Were they not married? Where did they belong? Moses commanded: If you send her away, at least give her a certificate of divorce. Make it official.

What is more, lest you do so casually or lightly, you need to realize that this is a permanent act. There is no going back. If she marries again, even if she should be subsequently divorced again or even if her second husband should die – even then, you are not permitted to take her back as your wife. God, through Moses was seeking to establish that marriage is not something you casually move in and out of at whim. It is a serious matter that has legal and social as well as personal ramifications. This was the intent of the Law.

What were the scribes and the Pharisees doing with this teaching? They took that conditional clause (if he sends her away, if she goes…) and treated it as a command. Moses never commanded them to divorce their wives. He simply said, “If you do it, this is how you must do it.” If your heart is so hard you insist on sending your wife away, at least observe this legal protocol. But they treated it as a command and one that gave them the right to divorce their wives for almost any reason, as long as they observed the technicality of issuing the correct paper work.

In contrast to their teaching and practice, what did Jesus say? Once again, Jesus goes back to the spirit of the law and to God’s original intention. Twice in his response in chapter 19 he uses the words, “In the beginning…” And when he goes back to the beginning, we find that he talks to us, not about divorce, but about marriage. Jesus cuts through all the legal language and states this one, overarching, governing truth.

If we know what God thinks about marriage, then we know what God thinks about divorce.

Let’s look at verses 4-6 again.

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

What does God think about marriage? Let me summarize it in three simple statements.

1. Marriage is God’s idea.
This is very clear in Jesus’ words and his reference to creation. In the beginning, God made them male and female. Sexuality, maleness and femaleness, and marriage: this was God’s design in the very beginning. And in the very beginning he decreed that a man shall leave his mother and father and hold fast to his wife…

This is essential. Marriage is not man’s idea. It is not a social custom or tradition that we are free to abandon when it no longer suits us. Sociologists tell us that marriage is going out of style. It is outmoded and outdated, and no longer suits modern society and its norms. I am sorry but all such discussion is irrelevant. Marriage is God’s idea. He instituted it and he takes it very, very seriously. When a man and a woman come together in marriage, it is God who joins them together. It is not a preacher, or a judge. Nor is it simply a legal contract or a legal document that can be over-ruled by another legal document. Our marriage vows are recorded and registered in heaven itself!

2. The marriage relationship is physically exclusive.
The two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. That is God’s plan and God’s design. Two people become one and remain sexually and physically faithful and exclusive to one another. This is the solid core of marriage and it is reflected well in the traditional marriage vows men and women exchange in the wedding ceremony: “Will you forsake all others and keep you only unto her…”

Any act that breaks that physical exclusivity is an act of adultery. And God’s law says, “You shall not commit adultery.”

3. Marriage is permanent.
The original wording that is translated “hold fast to”, or “united” or in the King James Version, “cleave”, speaks of a permanent and inseparable bond. And to these strong Old Testament words, Jesus adds this conclusion: What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. These words are not found in the Old Testament. This is Jesus’ own commentary on the implications of the Old Testament teaching. This is the “but I say unto you…” of the spirit of the law. This is the greater righteousness that God desires in his kingdom.

Remember the next phrase in the wedding vows: “Forsaking all others, keep you only unto her as long as you both shall live.” And later in the wedding ceremony: “I take you to be my lawfully wedded wife…lawfully wedded husband…until death do us part.”

In God’s eyes, marriage is permanent, as long as both spouses live.

So what does God think about divorce? If we know what God thinks about marriage, then we know what he thinks about divorce. It is a violation of his plan and his will. It is the breaking of the promise and vows of sexual exclusiveness and fidelity. It is the ending, the rendering temporary of that which God decreed to be permanent.

There is a powerful passage in the Book of Malachi, chapter 2. In the context, the people of Israel were complaining that God had forsaken them and that God was no longer accepting their offering and blessing them when they came to worship in his temple.

And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16 “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”

What does God think of divorce? He hates it. It is an act of violence. It is a breaking of faith. Divorce is a tragic breakdown of God’s eternal plan for a man and a woman, for a family and for society as a whole. Divorce breaks God’s heart.

It means that something has gone drastically wrong. And what is more, I believe that such a tragedy can and must be traced to deliberate choices of sinful people. It comes, as Jesus said, from the hardness of the human heart. Society takes a very casual approach to marriage and divorce today. “Oh well, it just didn’t work out between us. We weren’t happy. We outgrew each other. We weren’t in love anymore. It was time to move on. I have to discover myself.” These excuses will simply not stand up in the face of God’s clear intentions stated in Scripture. Divorce happens because of sin on the part of one partner or the other or both. There is no such thing (in God’s eyes) as a “no fault” divorce.

God design, God’s plan, the spirit of his law, his will, is for one man and one woman to remain together in sexually exclusive fidelity for life. To walk away from one’s marriage, or to send away one’s partner and then enter into marriage with someone else constitutes a breach of one’s wedding vows and God calls it what it is: adultery.

What about the “exception” clause which is found in both Matthew 5 and Matthew 19? Simply put, Jesus tells us that when one partner commits adultery by breaking his/her vow of sexual fidelity, God recognizes the right of the one sinned against to seek a divorce. Why? Because the wedding vows, the one flesh bond has already been broken by an act of adultery.

Does God command divorce in such cases? No. He permits it. Even here, I believe there is often a higher road available to us. It is the road of forgiveness and reconciliation; a road that allows God to heal that which has been broken.

But when the sinning partner will not repent, when he or she persists in an adulterous relationship or a series of such relationships, the path of divorce may be the only course open to the other partner. God does not require anyone to remain in a non-exclusive marriage relationship. The exception clause is actually given to protect the sanctity of “one-flesh” marriage.

This then, is Jesus’ teaching on marriage. And if we know what he thinks about marriage, then we know what he thinks about divorce.

What shall we do with this teaching and this passage of Scripture? How shall we respond to it and how shall we apply it? A passage like this always raises a whole bunch of “What abouts?” What about …? What about…? What about…? Obviously it is beyond the scope of this message, and well beyond my ability or wisdom to answer all such questions. But as we wrestle with the complexities of our lives, I would direct us back to God’s original design. What does God think about marriage? If we can answer that question, we will know what he thinks, not only about divorce, but about a host of other gender and relational issues as well.

Speaking in very broad strokes, let me address several different categories of people.

First to those of you who are married.
If at all possible, stay married! Jesus would urge us to redouble our commitment to our marriages and our marriage partners. Put all thought of divorce out of your mind. It is not the solution. Find a way to make your marriage work. Leave no stone unturned, no avenue unexplored. “What God has joined together, let man not separate.”

Ruth Graham, the wife of evangelist Billy Graham, was once asked if she had ever considered divorce. She responded with her wry sense of humor: “Divorce? Never. Murder? Frequently.”

We chuckle – but it is a good reminder that no marriage is without its rough places that test us to the extremes of our endurance – but keeping our marriages together must be priority one.

Second, to the unmarried or the not-yet-married.
Let me urge you. Before you marry, take a good long look at what the Bible says about marriage. And before you marry, determine that you are entering your marriage with a “no divorce” commitment. Recognize, before you take the step, that when you make that commitment to marriage, it is a commitment made in the sight of God, and it is a promise you make to him as well as to your partner – and he expects you to keep it.

Third, to those who are divorced.
If we know what God thinks about marriage, we know what God thinks about divorce. It is sin. It is the breaking of a promise, a covenant. Maybe you were the one at fault. Maybe you weren’t. But you need to examine your heart and, if necessary own the sin or sins that led you down that path.

While all divorce may ultimately be traced to human sin, such sins are not unforgivable. Our God is a God of grace. He can and will forgive when we come to him, humble, repentant, mourning for our sin as well as its consequences. He will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. What is past, it may not be possible to rectify. The damage that has been done many times cannot be undone. You can’t turn back the clock. You can’t unscramble the egg. Like Humpty Dumpty, some things can’t be put back together again. But you can be restored to fellowship with God and to right standing with him.

Finally, to the church as a whole.
Let us affirm our commitment to God’s design and God’s desire to build strong, Christ-centered marriages that are firmly committed to Kingdom values. Let’s pray for the marriages and families in the church. Let’s not just be against divorce. Let’s be pro marriage and jointly commit to teach, affirm and encourage one another toward healthy marriages. Let’s teach our young people and our children what God says about marriage. It’s such an obvious truth, but one often neglected. The best defense against more divorces in the church is to encourage and develop healthy marriages.

How shall we treat divorce and those who have been divorced? This is one of the greatest dilemmas facing any church or community of faith on a variety of issues and arenas. How do we uphold God’s righteous standards while still extending mercy and grace to sinners? This will always be a work in progress, fraught with ambiguity and hard decisions.

Here we must strike a very delicate balance. We must not be afraid to call sin sin. But it is also important for us all to remember that one sin is not worse in God’s eyes than another. We must remember the context in which these words of Jesus occurred in Matthew 5. Jesus is speaking of the spirit of the law and the ability of the law to probe to the very depths of our hearts and to expose the sin within. Last week, we listened to Jesus’ words that in the spirit of the law, our anger and our verbal abuse is as the sin of murder. And if we were honest, we found it necessary to bow in repentance and cry: “O Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Then we looked at Jesus’ teaching that in the spirit of the law, when we lust, we have committed adultery in our hearts. And again, if we were honest, we found it necessary to confess the adultery in our hearts and cry, “O Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”

We are all sinners in God’s eyes. Only the details vary. We are all sinners, saved by grace. Remember that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit and to those who mourn. Remember the fifth beatitude: Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. As those who have received the mercy of God for our sins and who desire God to be merciful to us in our continuing struggle against the sin in our hearts, we should be quick to extend that same grace and mercy to others.

Discussion Questions

1. Read Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:3-9 together.

2. In what way do you think the Pharisees’ question constituted a test? (Matthew 19:3)

3. Both passages refer to Moses and a certificate of divorce. Read Deuteronomy 24:1-4. What do you think God was seeking to accomplish with these instructions?

4. What does God think about marriage? From Genesis 2:24, Pastor Cam drew three key truths. Do you recall what they were? Can you add any other insights from this foundational passage?

5. How does understanding God’s design for marriage influence our attitude toward divorce?

6. In what ways does the exception clause in Jesus’ teaching serve to actually protect God’s design for marriage?

7. How can the church uphold God’s standards and still extend God’s mercy and grace to sinners?

8. Why is it important to remember the context of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:31-32?

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