Marriage and Divorce

A sermon on Mark 10:1-12 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA, 2/27/00

Mark 10:1-12 is one of the more controversial passages in Scripture, because it deals with very personal issues: marriage and divorce. Many of you are familiar with the different approaches taken on this passage, even among those who accept the Bible as God's perfect word. Indeed, the position I will present today puts me at variance on some details with many of the men I most highly respect. But after considerable study and much prayer, I am convinced in my own heart that I have the mind of the Spirit on this, as revealed to us in the Bible as a whole. I ask you all to listen carefully, and to be like the faithful Bereans, who searched the Scriptures daily to see if what Paul said was true. Base your position on this issue not on what someone may have taught you in the past, or on what you’ve always believed, but on God's word.

How do we approach a passage like this? When we come to a difficult and controversial passage, how should we attempt to ensure that we hear God's word on the topic, rather than state our own opinion?

First, study the context. What themes are discussed immediately before and after the difficult passage? How do these themes relate to the present passage? What is God teaching in the longer section of Scripture?

Second, study the passage itself carefully: if the passage is narrative, what motives can we discern in the different speakers? How do answers to questions correspond to the questions themselves? How do listeners respond to statements that are made? What are the key words in the passage, and do they have connotations in the original language not shared by the English translation?

Third, how does the passage at hand compare with other passages that discuss the same topic? If the passage is a gospel narrative, are there parallel accounts in other gospels? In every case, what is the thrust of Scripture as a whole, both on the particular issue under discussion and on related themes?

I commend this approach to you whenever you are trying to understand the Bible. And we'll follow this approach this morning, by first examining the context of Mark 10, then looking at the passage itself. This will produce a preliminary interpretation, which we will then assess by examining other parts of Scripture that may call our interpretation into question.

While I frequently use this approach when trying to understand the Scriptures, my sermons usually don't walk you all through the process, but present the truth in a way that will challenge you and stick with you. This morning, I believe it is important to help you to see the process, to see the biblical argument for these conclusions about marriage and divorce, since I know that many of you right now disagree with the conclusions. So please focus on the word, follow the line of argument, and let the word dwell in you richly on this most important topic.

The Context

As we have noted previously, Mark 8:27 is a turning point in this gospel. Jesus asks his disciples about the opinions of others concerning himself, and then pointedly asks them, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter replies, "You are the Christ!" Then Jesus explains for the first time what it means for him to be the Christ: He will suffer, be rejected, and killed -- only to rise again on the third day. He then tells his disciples that they, too, must die to themselves, must be willing to give up their personal hopes and aspirations, must be willing to lose all of this life to follow him -- but when they do so, they will find true life, as they become what their Creator intends them to be.

We elaborated on these themes by spending one week in James, considering 3:14-4:10. James contrasts a life of selfish ambition with a life that finds fulfillment in God alone. If we are satisfied with God, if we seek Him first, if we truly delight in Him, then we have all good things. And God will use even those things that may appear to be tragedies in our lives for our good.

On the other hand, if our hearts are dead set on trying to get what the world has to offer, we end up destroying what God has given us for true fulfillment – like our children, and our marriages.

In that sermon, I paraphrased James 4:4-5 in this way:

Do you not realize that you are the bride of Christ? If you then love the world, you are nothing but an adulteress! You are acting in hatred toward your true husband, making yourself His enemy! Did God write this in the Scriptures for no reason? "I have made my Spirit to live in you, and thus I have a deep, jealous desire that you be mine alone." But do not despair; God's grace is greater than all our sin.

In chapter 9 of Mark, we find the disciples arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus does not reprimand them for their desire to be great. Instead, he redirects this desire, showing them the way to true greatness, through dying to self, depending on God, serving others, and judging oneself. A desire for greatness in the eyes of God is thus quite different from the selfish ambition that James discusses

So we might summarize the themes from 8:27 through the end of chapter 9 in this way:

That is the context for chapter 10 of Mark, and Jesus' discussion of marriage and divorce. The themes then continue through the rest of the chapter, as Jesus' says our faith must be like that of a little child, and that in financial matters also we must be willing to give up the world's ideas concerning satisfaction and success. We'll look at those issues next week.

The Permanence of Marriage

Let's now turn to today's passage:

1 ¶ And rising up, He *went from there to the region of Judea, and beyond the Jordan; and crowds *gathered around Him again, and, according to His custom, He once more began to teach them. 2 And some Pharisees came up to Him, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife. (Mark 10:1-2, NASB)

Why did the Pharisees ask this question? Did they want information? Were they honestly seeking his insight into this important matter? No. They are trying to get Jesus to take sides in a dispute, in order that those who disagree with him on this issue will quit following him.

Notice the way they phrase the question: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" What is their implied pattern of morality? The Pharisees are thinking that the purpose of the law is to lay out what is bad, and then their job is to avoid doing what is bad. In effect, they draw a line on the ground and say, "As long as I stay on this side of the line, I am moral; if I cross the line I am immoral. Since I really want what's on the other side of the line, I will get as close to the line as I can -- but won't cross it. Then I'll be a moral person."

Jesus blows apart that conception of morality in the Sermon on the Mount; indeed, in two sermons preached early last year we saw that "linism" was not God's intention at all in setting up the law (see first and second sermon). God set up the law so that His chosen people might display His character, so that His people might become like Him -- thus Jesus fulfills the law by redirecting us toward becoming like Him. In this way, Jesus' followers, who are becoming like Him, can have a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, who are practicing "linism."

Our goal, then, is to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus. This is vitally important as we consider marriage and divorce.

3 And He answered and said to them, "What did Moses command you?" 4 And they said, "Moses permitted a man TO WRITE A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY." (NASB)

The Pharisees here quote Deuteronomy 24:1-4. When you read that, you will find that the passage gives no command whatsoever about sending a wife away. Instead, it says: If you send your wife away and give her a certificate of divorce, and then she remarries, and then is divorced again or widowed, you may not marry her again. In effect, the Deuteronomy passage declares that marriage is a serious business; we are not to play musical chairs with our marriage partners. Men can't rotate women amongst themselves, and then start all over again at the beginning. So in Deuteronomy 24, God regulates divorces that were already happening.

But divorce was never God's intention for marriage, as Jesus now clearly shows:

5 But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 "But from the beginning of creation, God MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE. 7 "FOR THIS CAUSE A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER, 8 AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH; consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." (NASB)

Jesus says, "Yes, that regulation is in the Law – but it is there to restrain evil, not as a pointer to God’s character. To see God’s design and intention in marriage, go back to the beginning!" He then quotes from Genesis 1 concerning the creation of human beings, and from Genesis 2, the more detailed account of the creation of woman. Let's look at these passages briefly:

And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:27 NASB)

In ancient Hebrew, writers emphasize important statements by repeating them, sometimes putting a slightly different twist on one of the repetitions. Man's creation in God's image is so vitally important, the idea is stated three times -- and the third time "in the image of God" is replaced with "male and female." This suggests a central truth: Our sexuality and marriage itself is not an afterthought or an accident; God plans marriage from the beginning as a reflection of the unity within diversity that we find in the trinity.

Chapter 2 tells this story in more detail, reemphasizing this truth. After creating Adam, God states, "It is not good for the man to be alone," and fashions the woman out of Adam’s rib. Upon the presentation of Eve to Adam -- the first marriage ceremony -- Adam responds "This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh;" then we find the verse Jesus quotes in Mark, Genesis 2:24. So the husband/wife relationship is even closer than the parent/child relationship; husband and wife are to be united to each other, they are to be one flesh.

This verse is quoted three times in the New Testament: Mark 10, the parallel passage in Matthew 19, and Ephesians 5, where Paul gives us more insight into its meaning. I commend the entire passage to you -- and you may find some earlier sermons devoted to this passage helpful (first and second) -- but for today let's look only at verses 29 to 32:

29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church-- 30 for we are members of his body. 31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a profound mystery-- but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:29-32 NIV)

So Paul here makes clear what was hinted at but not obvious in Genesis: The one-flesh relationship – the sexual and spiritual union found in a good marriage – pictures the relationship between Christ and the church, between God and His chosen people.

Just as the Levitical sacrificial system pictured Jesus’ death on the cross, just as baptism pictures our cleansing and our being united with Christ in his death and resurrection – in this way, the one flesh relationship in marriage pictures the relationship between Christ and the church.

So we husbands are to love, cherish, care for, and delight in our wives, as Christ does the church; and wives are to respect and honor and love and trust their husbands – to their great delight, all the time providing a picture for all creation to see of the relationship between Christ and the church.

So God joins us together in marriage, picturing the unity in diversity within the godhead – reflecting our being made in the image of God – and picturing the love and unity that characterizes the relationship between Christ and the church.

Therefore Jesus says, "What God has joined together, let no man separate." Can the Trinity be separated? Can Christ be separated from his church? Then neither should we separate from our marriage partners.

Beth and I were married by her father, a Presbyterian minister, in December of 1979. That previous fall we were both in California, she working in a research garden, I studying in graduate school. We asked the minister at our theologically-liberal church to give us some suggestions for possible orders of service for our marriage. We picked one we liked, made a few changes, and sent it to Beth's father. The draft we sent included a line something like this: "By the commitments you have stated to each other today, you have made yourselves man and wife." I'm eternally grateful to Beth's father that he told us, "I can't say that; I don't believe it. God joins you together; you don't make yourselves man and wife."

That is Jesus’ teaching. When confronted with a question about divorce, he teaches on the purpose of marriage, concluding with the statement: "What God has joined together, let no man separate."

There is no ambiguity here. The teaching of this passage, with consideration given to the context, is that divorce is always wrong.

10 And in the house the disciples began questioning Him about this again. 11 And He *said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; 12 and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery." (Mark 10:10-12 NASB)

I want you to note two things here. First, this is an unequivocal, perfectly clear statement. Could Jesus have stated his point any more clearly?

Second, this conclusion is perfectly consistent with the teaching that precedes it. God intends marriage to last a lifetime. God joins man and wife together. Man has no business breaking that relationship. This is what we would expect, given what he has said about marriage: If you desire to become like Christ, if you claim that you are being transformed into Christlikeness, then you will not divorce your spouse under any circumstances.

Challenges to the Permanence of Marriage

Given the clear teaching in Mark 10:1-12, why would anyone believe that there are circumstances under which Christians can seek a divorce? There are four arguments that can be made from Scripture:

  1. Matthew’s parallel account to Mark 10:1-12 includes words that some believe make divorce allowable in the case of adultery;
  2. Some interpret 1 Corinthians 7:15 as allowing divorce in cases of desertion or abandonment;
  3. In the Old Testament, divorce is not treated as adultery;
  4. Although marriage reflects God's relationship with His people, in Jeremiah and Isaiah God is said to divorce his people because of their spiritual adultery -- therefore, if God acts that way, so may we.

We will consider each in turn.

Matthew's "Exception Clause"

Before we look at Matthew, note that although Luke does not relate the incident described in today's text, he does quote Jesus speaking to the issue of divorce:

"Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery." (Luke 16:18 NASB)

So Mark and Luke are perfectly consistent. All of the teaching on divorce given in Mark and Luke are absolutely clear; divorce is always wrong.

Matthew's gospel records Jesus' statements about divorce twice, in the Sermon on the Mount with words similar to Luke 16:18, and in Matthew 19, in an account parallel to Mark 10. Look first at Matthew 5:32, in the first part of the Sermon on the Mount:

"I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (Matthew 5:32 NASB)

So the thrust of this verse is the same as the statement in Luke. The primary difference is the addition of "except for the cause of unchastity." Similarly, the text of Matthew 19:9 is similar to Mark 10:11 with an "exception clause:"

"And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." (NASB)

Some interpret "unchastity" and "immorality" (they actually are different translations of the same Greek word) to mean "adultery," and therefore argue that any time adultery takes place, divorce is allowable. Does this mean that divorce after one partner commits adultery is allowable?

We will see later that the thrust of Scripture argues against that interpretation, but I believe there is evidence even within Matthew's account that calls it into question.

First, the Greek word used is not the normal word for adultery -- thus the translations as "immorality" and "uncleanness." If Jesus wanted to allow divorce because of adultery, why did he not use the normal word?

Second, consider the context of Matthew 19. What precedes this incident? In Matthew 18:21, Peter, thinking himself to be very generous, asks Jesus,

"Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" 22 Jesus *said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven." (NASB)

Then Jesus proceeds to tell the story of the unjust servant, who is forgiven a debt to the king of about $3 billion dollars, but then throws a fellow servant in prison for failure to pay a debt of about $5000. The king hears about this action and throws the servant to the torturers. Jesus concludes,

"So shall My heavenly Father also do to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:35 NASB)

Given this context, is it even conceivable that in 19:1-9 Jesus means, "Always forgive from your heart those who sin against you -- oh, unless it happens to be your wife or husband who commits adultery. Then you don't have to forgive from your heart."

Third, consider the disciples' reaction to Jesus' statement in 19:9:

The disciples *said to Him, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry." (Matthew 19:10 NASB)

The disciples are astounded and amazed. They have never heard teaching like this before. If Jesus has been saying, "You may only divorce your wife if she commits adultery," he would have been aligning himself with a prominent teaching among the rabbis; the disciples would have heard it all before, and would have no reason to be amazed. But their reaction indicates that Jesus must mean something different, something new, something radical.

Note what we have done so far. The clear, obvious teaching of Mark and Luke is that divorce is always wrong. We are in the process of checking out that interpretation by looking at the rest of Scripture. Matthew adds the "exception clause" to his reports of Jesus' teaching on divorce. While that "exception clause" is frequently used to justify divorce, we have now called that interpretation into question for three reasons: (1) the word used is not the normal word for adultery; (2) Jesus has just given radical teaching about our need to forgive others from the heart, no matter what they do to us; and (3) the reaction of the disciples is inconsistent with Jesus allowing a divorce in the case of adultery.

So how are we to understand the "exception clause?" Why does Matthew include phrases that are included neither in Luke nor Mark?

Because Matthew is the only gospel that discusses an actual divorce! Look at Matthew 1:19:

19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. (NASB)

Remember, Joseph and Mary are not married; the ceremony has not taken place, the marriage has not been consummated. Nevertheless, betrothal in this culture was much more of a commitment than in our culture, and he would have to "divorce" her if he were not to marry her. So when he gets this astounding news that his seemingly pure and innocent wife-to-be is pregnant, he decides to proceed with a secret "divorce."

Therefore, I believe Matthew includes the "exception clause" to make clear that what Joseph intended to do was right and proper. Under this interpretation, the exception clause means, "All divorce is wrong, except when one discovers prior to the marriage that one's betrothed is not sexually pure. In that case, the engagement can be terminated." This explanation is appealing, because it allows Mark and Luke's accounts to mean exactly what they say; it is consistent with Jesus' teaching about forgiveness (one can forgive the betrothed without still going through with the marriage ceremony); it accounts for the disciples' reaction; and it accounts for the use of a different word than "adultery" in the "exception clause."

Consequently, I believe Matthew provides identical teaching to Mark and Luke; the "exception clause" refers to a situation we would not face today, when betrothals are not considered to be binding commitments.

Paul's "Desertion Clause"

In 1 Corinthians 7:15, Paul writes:

Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. (NASB)

Some argue that Paul here is allowing divorce in the case of desertion or abandonment.

I commend the entire passage to you for study; the relevant section begins at 6:9 and continues through the end of chapter 7. This morning we can only hit a few points.

In chapter 7, Paul responds to a question or questions asked by the Corinthians. We don't have a copy of those questions, but we infer from Paul's answers that they were something like this:

You, Paul, are single. Should we divorce our spouses and become single like you so that we can devote ourselves more fully to God? Or should we stay married, but forego sexual relations, again so that we might devote ourselves to God? What about the particular case of marriage to an unbeliever? Since Christians are only to marry Christians, if I become a Christian while married to an unbeliever, should I divorce my spouse?

In summary, Paul's response is "No! Stay as you are, and continue to have sexual relations in your marriage! You can glorify God in your existing relationships – even in a marriage to an unbeliever."

Let's look at a few verses of particular relevance to our discussion. First, Paul elaborates on the one-flesh relationship in verse 4:

The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (NASB)

We belong to each other, and we are to give ourselves and our bodies fully and wholeheartedly to each other.

10 ¶ But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not send his wife away.

The woman is not to divorce her husband (the word translated "leave" in both verses is the same used by Jesus when saying, "What God has joined together, let no man separate.") If she disobeys this command and does so, she must remain unmarried, hoping to reconcile with her husband.

Paul assumes in verses 10 and 11 that the marriage is among Christians; beginning in verse 12 he considers marriages in which one partner is not a believer:

12 But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. 13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away.

We have already seen verse 15, which we will come back to. Paul concludes this section by saying:

16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?

God may very well use a believing husband or wife to save the unbelieving spouse. So while Christians should not marry unbelievers, those who find themselves married to unbelievers are to stay married, indeed, are to live in intimate union with their spouses (v 4).

The last two verses in the passage make a categorical statement:

39 ¶ A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But in my opinion she is happier if she remains as she is; and I think that I also have the Spirit of God.

Only death breaks the marriage bond. Then the widow is free to remarry, but Paul advises her to consider singleness at that point; this may result in greater happiness.

All that we have seen is perfectly consistent with our interpretation of Mark 10:1-12: marriage is a permanent, one-flesh relationship that is broken only by death; "what God has joined together, let no man separate."

In this context, how are we to understand verse 15? Let's read it again:

15 Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.

Note that if this verse teaches that divorce is allowable in cases of abandonment, it is only allowing such divorces when the one who leaves is an unbeliever. This passage certainly gives no grounds for divorce among Christians.

But I do not believe that this verse is discussing divorce at all. First, if it were, it would be a direct contradiction of verse 39 (not to mention the passages we have considered in Mark and Luke). Second, the words translated "is not under bondage" in the NASB literally mean "is no longer enslaved." This is a different word than the one translated "bound" in the NASB in verses 27 and 39; that word literally means "tied together," and is used in the context of the possibility of remarriage. The use of different words indicates that Paul may be distinguishing between "being enslaved" to one's spouse and "being bound in matrimony" to that person.

What would this mean? How can someone "no longer be enslaved" to a spouse but still be "bound" to him or her? I believe the answer is found once again by looking at the context. Where has Paul referred to an authority relationship, like master/slave, earlier in this chapter? We saw it in verse 4: the husband and wife have authority over each other's bodies. This is the key to understanding verse 15. I believe we can understand what Paul is saying in verses 15, 16, and 39 in this way:

If your unbelieving spouse deserts you, your body is no longer under his authority; he can't rotate back to you once every couple of months and expect to engage in sexual relations, then leave again. If he deserts you, he loses those rights. But you are still tied to him until his death. Through your prayers and your gentle spirit, you may yet be the instrument God uses to convert him, and God may in his mercy restore the marriage.

In today's parlance, we would say that Paul here is countenancing legal separation in the case of desertion.

So Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians is perfectly consistent with what we have seen in Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Marriage is permanent. Even when one spouse deserts the other, the marriage is not over, though the relationship between the spouses changes. Desertion is grounds for legal separation, and for refusal to engage in sexual relations should the partner return, but it is not grounds for divorce.

The Treatment of Divorce in the Old Testament

Some argue that since divorce is not treated the same as adultery in the Old Testament, Jesus cannot mean that divorce is the equivalent of adultery in the New Testament. This argument is not at all compelling. First of all, even in the Old Testament, God makes His perspective on divorce clear, saying in Malachi 2:16, "I hate divorce." God controls and regulates divorce in the Old Testament; He never promotes it.

Second, consider Matthew 5, the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. In the Old Testament, lust is not said to be the equivalent of adultery, but Jesus says in Matthew 5 that it is. In the Old Testament, anger is not said to be the equivalent of murder, but Jesus says that it is. Jesus makes clear that we are to be perfect, like Him; we are to become like Him. he is not creating lines that we can avoid crossing and then declare ourselves righteous. Clearly, the fact that under Old Testament law divorce was not treated like adultery has no bearing on whether or not Christians should engage in divorce.

So we have now considered three of the four arguments from other Scriptures against our interpretation of the teaching on divorce found in the gospels. We have seen that our interpretation still holds. There is one more argument remaining:

God is Said to Divorce Israel for Adultery

Turn to Jeremiah 3:8. God is speaking:

And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce (NASB)

We find similar language in Isaiah 50:1-2. So the prophets picture the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah as divorce; because of the unfaithfulness of the Israelites, because of the spiritual adultery they commit, God withdraws His protection, allowing their cities to be destroyed and their people to be taken into exile.

So some argue, "Surely if God divorces the Israelites for adultery, it is right and proper for us to divorce our spouses for adultery."

Once again, this argument has some plausibility at first. But read the context of these passages! God never intended to end His "marriage" to His people; if God were writing Isaiah or Jeremiah today, I believe He would use the term "legal separation" instead of "divorce." For in every context He makes clear that He is devoted to His wife, Israel, regardless of her unfaithfulness; he withdrew his support and protection for a time in order that she might taste and see the logical consequences of her sin – but he always, always promised to bring her back to himself, to perfect her, to make her holy, spotless, without blame or blemish.

We don't have time to consider all of the promises God makes, but let's look at one of them. In Isaiah 50:1, God says He sent Israel away -- He "divorced" her -- for her sins; but throughout this passage God proclaims the surety of his everlasting covenant with His people. Look back a few verses, at 49:14-16:

But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me." 15 "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands (NIV)

God says, "I love you more than any mother has ever loved her child! I will never leave you nor forsake you! Look! See my hands! You are there, not written in washable ink, but engraved, permanently, there before me always, forever, since the foundation of the world! You are mine! You belong to me! And that will never change!"

Do you understand what this picture tells us? What was true of Israel? How had they forsaken God? What is true of you and me? Haven’t we too forsaken God?

You are the adulterous wife! You are the wife who has abandoned her husband and sought after others! Whenever we love this world ahead of God, we are adulteresses, as James says. Will your husband abandon you?

Praise God! Nothing can separate us from His love to us in Jesus Christ our Lord, not even our own spiritual adultery.


The whole thrust of the Bible is that we are to forgive as we have been forgiven. We are adulterous in our relationship to Christ; he forgives us for that sin, restores us, and purifies us. We too must be willing to offer similar forgiveness and restoration to our own spouses for all their sins against us, including adultery, if necessary.

We are to die to self; we are to find our satisfaction in God alone. If in the end we suffer for a while because of our trust in Christ, because we do not act as the world expects, God will redeem that suffering, and reward us, possibly in this world, certainly in the next.

Marriage is permanent, lasting as long as both partners live.

How does this work out in practice to the different groups represented this morning?

Are you not yet married?

Understand what marriage is: a permanent, lifelong relationship. A sacred picture of Christ and the church. Only marry when you are ready and willing to make such a commitment, knowing that your feelings will change over time. Never marry because you "don't want to be lonely." Some of the loneliest people I know are living together in bad marriages, completely isolated from each other. Instead, find your satisfaction in God, and in Him alone -- then you can give to others, including a possible future marriage partner.

Are you married?

Stay married! Glorify God in this wonderful picture of the Trinity, of Christ and the church! Abandon yourselves to each other, loving, respecting, and enjoying each other!

Don't even consider divorce! In cases of abuse, adultery, and abandonment, there certainly are grounds for physical and possibly legal separation; but in every case we need to focus on forgiving and loving the erring spouse, and seeking his or her salvation and repentance and restoration.

Are you trying to stay married, but your spouse is intent on divorce?

Do all you can to slow down and stop the divorce process. Pray for reconciliation. Seek help. Ask forgiveness from your spouse for all the sins you can recall that you committed against him or her -- even if you believe the sins committed against you were much more serious.

But in our society, sometimes there is nothing you can do. Sometimes a spouse will push the divorce through and you cannot stop it. I understand that.

Are you divorced already?

Pray for reconciliation, and a renewal of the marriage. Even if you can't imagine ever getting back together with your former husband or wife, pray that you might fully forgive him or her. Get rid of all bitterness and anger. If you did not fight the divorce, or if you promoted it, repent and seek forgiveness. Find your satisfaction in God alone, and make Him the desire of your heart.

Are you divorced and remarried?

There now is no opportunity for reconciliation. But you can still repent, and seek forgiveness. You can also glorify God in your present marriage. You sinned; but God can use even our sins for His glory and our good. Do repent, but don’t dwell on, "Oh, what might have been." You sinned; seek forgiveness; and then glorify God fully in your life from now on.

Every one of us:

Where do you find satisfaction? Are you willing to suffer for the surpassing glory of knowing Christ? More than anything else in the world, do you want to know Him and to become like Him?

Remember the image from Isaiah 49: His people are graven on his hands! A mother will forget her child before God will forget you. You can know forgiveness for all your sins -- including the sins of divorce and adultery.

So if you don’t know Him as Savior and Lord, plead with Him: "Might I too be engraved on your hands?" Receive Him, believe in his name – and He will welcome you into his arms, and show you that you have been there, engraved in his hands, all along.

Let us pray:

Lord, earlier today we sang:

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end to all my sin.

Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free;
For God the Just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me;
To look on Him and pardon me.

My name is graven on His hands;
My name is written on His heart;
I know that while in heaven he stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart,
No tongue can bid me thence depart.

You have spoken to us today, O Lord. May you search us and know us, and reveal to us our hidden faults. Thank you for your free offer of grace and forgiveness. May we desire you with all of our hearts, and glorify you in our marriages. In Jesus' precious name, Amen.

This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 2/27/00; this version was edited on 10/1/2000. I found John Piper's position paper on divorce and remarriage helpful, particularly on 1 Corinthians 7 and the Matthew exception clauses. The hymn quoted is "Before the Throne of God Above," by Charitie Lee Bancroft; it is in the public domain. Hear a clip from a lovely modern setting of the hymn at this link.

Copyright © 2000, Thomas C. Pinckney. This data file is the sole property of Thomas C. Pinckney. Please feel free to copy it, but only in its entirety for circulation freely without charge. All copies of this data file must contain the above copyright notice.

This data file may not be copied in part, edited, revised, copied for resale or incorporated in any commercial publications or other products offered for sale, without the written permission of Thomas C. Pinckney,, c/o Community Bible Church, Harrison Ave, Williamstown, MA 01267.

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