Through the studies of this series, we are learning to know Jesus better. We have considered many proofs of his power and his identity, his patience and compassion, his love for people and his righteous anger against their sins. We have seen that Jesus had no regard for racial barriers or tribalism, nor for religious traditions that men impose on other men. He was concerned for the physical needs of men, but his priority was to address spiritual problems.
We have seen what Jesus asked of many of those who wanted to be his disciples. He expected a total commitment from them. He did not hesitate to tell the multitudes who followed him that it was necessary to be ready to suffer and even to die for him. This attitude of Jesus inevitably made a lot of people decide not to follow him. They were not ready to pay the price to be his disciples.
Today, we will see another quality of Jesus that we have to admire but which also led some people to reject his teachings: Jesus was committed, without compromise, to what is right. He did not lower the bar to attract lots of people. Instead of making the law of God easier so that people could keep it without any effort, he called the hard of heart to humble themselves and conform themselves to the will of the Creator. We see a concrete example of this trait of the Lord when he was questioned on the subject of divorce. Our text is found in Matthew 19:3-12.
“The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?’ And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning “made them male and female,” 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”? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.’
“They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.’
“His disciples said to Him, ‘If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But He said to them, ‘All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.’”
God’s original intention
When the Pharisees asked Jesus if a man could divorce his wife for any reason, Jesus reminded them of what God had said after creating man and woman, namely, “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Then he added, “…so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” It is clear. Marriage is the permanent union of a man and a woman. Whether we recognize it or not, God has something to do with it. He instituted marriage. And when a couple having the right to marry does so, it is God who unites them. Man must not dissolve this union created by God.
When we marry, we must not say to ourselves that if it doesn’t work, if there are too many problems, we can always divorce and each of us find new partners in case we want to try again. No, God wanted marriage to be for life. We give ourselves to one another unconditionally, and we keep our word of honor until death. We must, of course, cultivate in the home emotions of tenderness and affection, but marriage is built on sacred vows more than on changing emotions. Marriage is founded on the will and infinite wisdom of the Creator.
When these sacred vows and this divine will are violated, when a married person has sexual relations with anyone except his or her legal spouse, this is adultery. Paul said in Romans 7:2,3, “For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress.”
We remain bound
Since it is God who unites the couple who gets married, this union cannot be dissolved just because people want to. Even when a human judge declares a couple’s divorce to be official, in the eyes of God they are still married to one another. This is the reality that explains the words of Jesus: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery…” (Matthew 19:9). If I divorce my wife without her having had sexual relations with anyone else, and I remarry, then I commit adultery against my first wife by having sexual relations with the new wife. Why? Because God does not recognize my divorce. He will still consider me the husband of the one I wanted to send away. This logic explains the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:32 also: “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.” So if I divorce my wife without her having had sexual relations with someone else, and she finds another husband, she commits adultery against me because I am still her husband in God’s eyes. Also her new partner commits adultery in having sexual relations with a woman who is already married.
Jesus allowed only a single legitimate cause that would give a person the right to divorce his or her partner and remarry: that is infidelity. The word “infidelity” is translated as fornication or sexual immorality. If I have been faithful to my wife but she has slept with another man, I have the right to divorce her and marry another. In all other situations, God would not recognize my divorce and I would have no right to take another wife.
The law applies to all
Some people ask, “If I divorced and remarried before hearing the Gospel, isn’t my second marriage made pure by my baptism? I married the second time while ignorant and still in the world.” First let us emphasize that not recognizing the authority of Jesus does not mean that we are not responsible before the law or that we are not guilty of disobeying Him. Everyone, both Christian and non-Christian, is subject to the authority of Christ. He said in Matthew 28:18, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Everybody is supposed to know the law. If we were not under God’s law, we would be without sin (Romans 4:15). The fact that we are all sinners proves that we are all under the law.
Let us remember, next, that baptism, obviously, does not change a sinful act into an act approved by God. Yes, according to Bible teaching, the person who believes in Jesus and who is repentant of his or her sins receives forgiveness of those sins when baptized into Christ. But when God pardons the evil that I’ve done, this does not mean that this activity will no longer be sinful if I continue in it or if I take it up again. I cannot persist in the sin without bringing myself again into condemnation.
If I live in fornication, having sexual relations with a woman without being married to her, the fact of believing in Jesus and being baptized does not take the place of marrying her. Being baptized does not mean that I am automatically married to my partner in fornication or that this relationship is now pure before God. Being baptized does not mean that the one that God did not recognized as my wife is now recognized as my wife. Baptism does not give me the right to remain in a situation that the word of God condemns.
The astonishment of the disciples
When Jesus told the Pharisees that man must not separate what God has joined, they asked him why Moses had given a law permitting a man to give his wife a letter of divorce and send her away. Jesus answered that it was because of the hardness of men’s hearts that Moses permitted them to put away their wives. It was surely for the same reason that the old law allowed and regulated polygamy. But Jesus called men to return to what God had wanted from the creation: the uniting of one man with one woman until death separates them. Whatever the provisions of the law of Moses may have been, Jesus told them, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9).
It was not only the Pharisees who were surprised at Jesus’ position. His disciples also said, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). They believed it was too dangerous to take a wife if one did not have the right to be free of her if he “needed” to. Today, many think the same way. Jesus knew full well that everyone would not accept his teaching. This would not be a reason for him to deviate from the will and righteousness of God. He receives sinners with love and offers to forgive them, but he does not compromise with sin. Jesus also knew that there would be some who would be ready to make themselves like eunuchs, that is to go completely without sexual relations, if necessary, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
Truth is not always pleasant or easy to apply but it is by truth that we are made free of sin. Jesus said in John 8:31,32, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” There will always be those who are ready to dilute the truth to attract followers, to adapt to unrighteousness in order to fill their places of worship. Jesus was not like that. He had enough courage and enough love to always teach the truth, so that men would truly be free from sin.