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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at Life BPC 8am & 11am service, 2017-09-24

Text: Matthew 5:31-32

Here our Lord Jesus speaks on the subject of marriage and divorce. Although our Lord was never married during His earthly life, He had a very favourable but strict view of marriage. John chapter 2 records how He blessed a wedding couple by turning water into good quality wine when they ran out of wine during their wedding reception. In Matthew 19, when the Pharisees tried to question Him about divorce, Jesus said, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” (v.6) From this, we learn that the marriage union is forged by God Himself, and should never be broken by man.

According to Genesis chapter 2, marriage was designed to be a permanent union of only one man and one woman. God brought Adam and Eve together and joined them permanently in a one flesh union (Genesis 2:22-24). This divine pattern excludes same-sex unions, polygamy, and adultery.

But when sin entered the world, the marriage union started to unravel. After six generations from Adam, there was a man called Lamech who had two wives (Genesis 4:19). In the time of Abraham, Sodom and Gomorrah became centres of same-sex unions. King David committed adultery with Bathsheba. Solomon’s 700 wives and 300 concubines caused him to commit idolatry and this destroyed the very fabric of the nation Israel.

In John 4, the woman at the well whom Jesus saved already had five husbands, and was cohabiting with a man who was not her husband. Throughout man’s history, the marriage union has suffered a lot. And the situation is a lot worse today. Divorce is becoming very common. In some countries marriages are annulled as easily as they are made. The pop celebrity Britney Spears had a marriage that lasted for only 55 hours!

Unfortunately many marriages in Singapore are also unravelling. A report that was released only two months ago revealed that there were fewer marriages and more divorces in 2016. Marriages decreased by 1.2% and divorces increased by 1.2%. One out of four marriages here ends in divorce. The majority of marriages that ended in divorce lasted for only 10 years. If this trend continues, then in 30 years’ time, only half of all married couples in Singapore will still be married after their 15th anniversary. This trend is a global one, as this map shows. The divorce rate in the US is now 53%, but in European countries like Spain, Portugal and Belgium, 3 out of every 5 marriages ends in divorce. The union between husband and wife is unravelling at an alarming rate. Why is this happening?

One important reason is that too many couples are taking marriage and divorce too lightly – “I love you and you love me. Let’s get married and see what happens.” On those terms, either one can split at a moment’s notice. Marriage cannot be built on love alone. Love may fluctuate and have some cold spots.

Love grows cold when one or both partners insist on personal rights and personal fulfilment. 20% of all marital woes are related to miscommunication between marriage partners. Stress and conflict are said to damage 60-90% of Christian marriages. But selfishness and immaturity is the cause of 90% of all marital problems. Because of this self-centred view of marriage, some today have suggested modifying the words of the marriage vow. Instead of saying, “…for as long as we both shall live” they want to say, “…for as long as we both shall love.” How long can such a marriage last?

Today many are being told that marriage is merely a social construct which was designed to provide a stable environment for children. If marriage is merely a man-made social construct, then it is not binding and can be dissolved for any reason. If there was ever a time when the world needed an authoritative word from the Lord about marriage and divorce, it is now. And here in our text in Matthew 5, the Lord Jesus reminds us of three things on this very subject.

  1. Moses’ Reluctant Concession (v. 31)

The words of v.31 (“let him give her a writing of divorcement) were taken from what Moses had said in Deuteronomy 24:1. Here, Moses permitted divorce, but he did it reluctantly. He said, “When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.”

At a time when divorce in many other cultures around Israel was as easy as just saying, “I divorce you,” Moses insisted that men must at least give their ex-wives an official written proof that they were legally divorced and were therefore free to remarry. This is a far cry from saying, as some Pharisees maintained that Moses commanded men to put away their wives (Matthew 19:7). Jesus replied in v.8 that it was not a command at all but a concession that he made only because of the hardness of man’s sinful heart: “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” By saying “from the beginning it was not so,” Jesus went further back than Moses, all the way back to the time of Adam and Eve.

  1. God’s Original Intention

God’s design was for one man and one woman to become one flesh for life. Life partners are meant to be partners for life! This is implied in Genesis 2:24 which says,“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife.” The word ‘cleave’ in this verse means ‘to cling to one another permanently until death by any one of the parties should separate them.’ God designed marriage to be a covenant relationship – a relationship which reflects the indissoluble relationship between Christ and the Church: “For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.  Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” (Ephesians 5:23-25)

Therefore, husband and wife are to remain faithful to each other. Both must take their marriage vows seriously: “I take thee....as my lawfully wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish till death us do part.” These vows must be kept no matter what happens – till death us do part, and not till divorce us do part. Divorce is contrary to God’s perfect will.

One passage that shows this is Malachi 2:14-16. Many Israelite husbands were divorcing their aging wives in order to marry younger women from foreign lands. God sent the prophet Malachi to rebuke them for doing this, saying, “Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant. And did not He make one? Yet had He the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That He might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that He hateth putting away…”

Since God hates divorce and considers it to be a treacherous act, we too should hate it. Whenever I conduct premarital counseling for couples who are planning to be married, I emphasise that divorce should never be considered as an option after they are married. And I tell them that if a disagreement or conflict should ever arise between them and there is a heated exchange, the D word must never be mentioned. Why? Because God never ordained divorce. He ordained marriage, but only endured divorce because of man’s sin, and even that has to be carefully regulated.

If there are any disagreements, unhappiness or discontentment in marriage, God’s way to handle them is always for both partners to settle them by the grace which Christ gives us. But if they still cannot be reconciled no matter how hard they try, and they come to the point of separating from each other, then they should still keep themselves faithful to their marriage covenant. But what if one partner in a Christian marriage goes astray during this time of separation and becomes unfaithful? Then and only then does the other partner have a right to sue for a divorce.

  1. Jesus’ Solitary Exception (v. 32b)

Jesus said in v.32, “…whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication…” The word ‘fornication’ here refers to unfaithfulness. This is the only legitimate grounds for divorce for Christian couples, since it involves becoming one flesh with someone else. Once that happens, the original union is damaged. Thus, no believer should ever ask for a divorce, unless his spouse commits adultery. And even then, he should not ask for a divorce until he has seriously considered another option: Reclaim the spouse who has committed adultery and forgive her when she repents. But if the straying spouse refuses to repent of her sin and be reconciled, then he may sue for a divorce.

Now the last part of v.32 says, “…and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.”  We need to understand this part carefully. It applies only to the guilty partner in a divorce, the one who broke the marriage covenant by being unfaithful. Jesus says that if the guilty partner remarries, then she and the one who marries her, are condemned by the 7th commandment. But if the innocent party remarries after being divorced from the unfaithful spouse, he would not be committing adultery.

Actually, statistics have shown that only 1% of divorces in Singapore are filed on the grounds of adultery. Most civil divorces in Singapore (51%) are filed on the grounds of ‘unreasonable behaviour.’ This covers a wide variety of reasons, including mental or verbal abuse, accumulation of excessive debt, addiction to alcohol or gambling, and the absence of emotional or financial support.

If you ever face any of these problems please do not think of quitting your marriage. Seek to overcome them with the grace that Christ gives to us. Take time out of your busy schedule to talk things out objectively and to understand each other. If you were to probe carefully into the root cause of marital problems, you will soon discover that in most cases it is a breakdown in communication. And if you come to an impasse in dealing with all the sticky issues that stand between the two of you, don’t be ashamed to get the help of a Christian marriage counsellor or pastor to facilitate better communication and prayerful resolution of the problems. And please don’t act rashly to file for divorce on grounds of unreasonable behavior – remember that God hates divorce! In God’s eyes unreasonable behaviour is not legitimate grounds for divorce.

Someone may then say, “But pastor, I have already divorced my spouse and it was on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. So what should I do now?” The biblical advice is that you should keep the way open for your broken marriage to be restored. Who knows that your estranged spouse may return one day with a sincere desire to be reconciled? Then you can be happily married to each other again. All things are possible with God, and reconciliation is always the best option for Christian couples who are legally divorced for the wrong reasons.

But what if reconciliation becomes impossible because your estranged spouse marries someone else? By marrying someone else, your estranged spouse has committed adultery, and that makes your divorce legitimate. This means that you now have biblical grounds to marry another person.

Now, when Jesus said in v.32 that adultery is the only legitimate grounds for divorce, He was speaking in the context of marriages among God’s people. They had made a marriage covenant with each other before God and thus they must be faithful to keep their vows. But what if there is a different scenario– a couple who were not believers at the time when they got married? What if one partner in such a marriage later hears the gospel and becomes a Christian but the other does not? This situation hardly existed during the time of Christ, but it became common in the Church later on when Gentiles began to receive the Gospel and turned to Christ.

It was found in the Church at Corinth which comprised mostly of Gentiles whom the Apostle Paul had led to Christ. Please listen to what Paul wrote to them in 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 – “If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband...”

This is about a person who was not a believer but becomes a Christian after he is married (Thus he is called a ‘brother’). But his wife still remains an unbeliever, and yet she is content to stay on in the marriage. Such a person should not divorce but seek to win his wife to the Lord.

The Corinthian Christians needed this instruction since there were some among them whose spouses were still unbelievers living in the grossest sins and pagan idolatry that Corinth was so famous for. And as the Christians grew in their love for God and His holiness, they naturally found it more and more difficult to tolerate their spouses’ sinful habits and ungodly behaviour, fearing to be spiritually defiled through them. The urge to walk out of such a marriage would have been very great.

This was the reason why Paul wrote to them in v.14 – “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband.” Here he was telling them that staying married to the unbeliever does not defile them. Contrary to that, it sanctifies the unbeliever they are married to. The word ‘sanctified’ here refers to the holy influence that the unbelieving husband receives from living with a Christian wife. He is blessed with opportunities to hear the gospel from her and to see it working in her life.

Besides that, whenever she is blessed by God, he gets to enjoy the overflow of those blessings into his own life. How good it is to become a source of blessing to others, even to an unbelieving spouse. For their sake therefore, Paul urges the Christians who are married to them to remain in their marriage. This is the reason why husbands and wives who have become Christians should continue in their marriage if their unbelieving spouse does not mind staying with them.

The instruction is different however when the unbelieving spouse insists on leaving the marriage: “But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.” (1 Corinthians 7:15) Such a crisis may be triggered when the spouse who has become a Christian announces that he is going to be baptized. Emotions flare up as the wife issues an ultimatum: “Now you must choose between me and your desire to change your religion. If you change your religion I will walk out of your life right now!”

It is extremely painful to end a marriage for the sake of one’s faith in Christ, especially after living together as husband and wife for many years. But the difficult step has to be taken since our Lord Jesus has said, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37,38)

In the face all the tears and heartbreak, God’s instruction to a Christian in this situation is very plain – “If the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace” (v.15) This provides another grounds that is legitimate for a Christian to divorce and remarry besides proven adultery: Willful desertion by an unbelieving spouse. This is understood from the words ‘not under bondage’ in this verse, since Paul used the same term in v.39 when he wrote about remarriage after the death of a spouse: “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.”Likewise, the Christian who is deserted by an unbelieving spouse is at liberty to remarry if he wishes to do so, but only to another Christian.

Thus we have seen in today’s message that divorce was never in God’s will for man when He ordained marriage. Christians who marry must therefore be faithful to their marriage covenant. We have seen that our Lord Jesus reinforced the sanctity of marriage by making adultery the only legitimate grounds for divorce of Christian couples. We have also seen that divorce is also permitted if a Christian is willfully deserted by an unbelieving spouse.

For those of you who are not married yet, the important lesson you should take home from hearing all this, is to be most careful about how you enter into marriage. Be sure that you marry only in the Lord and not end up being unequally yoked with unbelievers. Complete oneness can never be achieved in such a marriage. Although there may be oneness in many areas, oneness in spiritual matters will always be lacking. I say this seriously to all Christians here who are contemplating marriage: Please be careful to marry someone who is of the same faith and same commitment to the Lord Jesus.

Besides that, be very sure that it is really God’s will for you to marry the person that you want to marry, and that you will not regret your decision to marry that person. God meant the road to marriage to be a one-way street. Once you are resolved to enter in, you must never turn back. Make sure that you are well-prepared for a life-long commitment of marriage, and then seek God’s help to build a strong Christ-centered marriage that will glorify Him!

Doing this requires much effort both by husband and wife. Both of you must be willing to put in the effort to be faithful and committed to each other. You need to do these things well and consistently. Therefore please pray that God will make you the best marriage partners that you can be and that you ought to be, so that yours will be a union that will not unravel – a strong Christ-centered marriage that will glorify God.

Despite doing all this, problems will still arise occasionally. Even the best Christian marriages have problems because men and women are constituted differently. But you can resolve them by making a conscious effort to do more listening than speaking. This will help you to understand your spouse better and to clear up any misunderstanding. You must also keep yourself in control of your reactions – don’t say or do anything that you may regret later on. And this is something that you can do, with God’s help.

Finally, let me share something that I have found in all my years of pastoral ministry. The most important element in resolving all marital problems is forgiveness. Many couples have resolved their marital problems and reconciled well through forgiveness. Someone has said that a happy and long-lasting marriage is a union of two imperfect people who are good “forgivers.”

One beautiful story of unconditional forgiveness in marriage comes from the book of Hosea. God had instructed the prophet Hosea to marry a woman named Gomer. Initially, their marriage abounded with mutual love, commitment and joy. Gomer bore three children to Hosea, but after that she had one adulterous affair after another. She eventually left Hosea, sold herself as a prostitute and soon ended up as a slave. When her master put her up for sale, only one man made a bid – Hosea. In an act of forgiveness, grace and unconditional, undying love, Hosea bought Gomer and took her home, not to be a slave, but to be his wife once more.

This is the kind of forgiveness that God expects you who are married to extend to your spouse. Can you forgive like that? Yes, forgiving your spouse like that is something that you can do with God’s help. Please remember this: God has done so much more to forgive you than you can ever do to forgive your spouse. He gave His only begotten Son to die on the cross so that all your sins may be forgiven! When Christ was unjustly tried, sentenced to die, humiliated and nailed to the cross to die at Calvary, what did He say? “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Is it so hard to forgive your spouse or anyone else you know, when God has forgiven you? May the Lord help us to do what He wants us to do.

 

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25