In the past year I’ve had a couple of friends go through divorce and each time it has torn our hearts. I won’t go into details, but what has struck me is how some in the church have responded to these divorces. Let’s just say there has been an aroma and it has not been the fragrance of Jesus. Divorce seems to bring out the ugly in some people.
In a recent post I asked the question “Can divorced people remarry?” By the grace of God they can! (Whether one should remarry is a separate question.)
While some may wag their fingers in judgment, the message I want divorced people to hear is this: You are not an unforgiven sinner; you are not a second-class citizen; you are your Father’s dearly-loved child. And while there are some who say you can never remarry, I say otherwise.
How then, do I account for these words of Jesus?
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9; see also Matthew 5:32, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18)
That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? There’s no wiggle room, no scope for licentious bloggers. Remarriage equals adultery. Jesus says so. But read his words in context and you will find there’s more going on than meets the eye:
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (Matthew 19:3)
To the religious mind divorce is little more than a legal issue. Never mind that real people get hurt by it, the only concern that the Pharisees had for divorce was whether it is lawful.
“Is it lawful?!” says Jesus (my paraphrased response). “Marriage is way more important than the law. Don’t you know that marriage predates the law?”
“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.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
In other words, “Don’t honor marriage merely because it’s lawful. Marriage is gift from God. It’s a taste of heaven-on-earth. God hates it when the gift is broken through divorce.”
“Aha! We’ve got you now,” replied the Pharisees who had come to test him. “You don’t know the rules as well as we do.”
“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7)
“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:8)
Under the Law of Moses, a man could divorce his wife for the mere fact that she had become “displeasing” in his eyes (Deu 24:1). In this way the law diminished the awesome gift of marriage. So that they might better value the gift, Jesus responded by elevating the law. (He did the same thing on the Sermon on the Mount, see Matt 5:32.) They had their law; he had his. And his was tougher:
“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matt 19:9)
And that shut up the Pharisees!
It’s quite possible that among those who heard Jesus say these words, there were some who had divorced their wives because they had become displeasing to them. “Her hair turned grey so I traded her in for a younger model.” In the eyes of Moses they had done nothing wrong, but in the judgment of Christ’s law they were adulterous law-breakers.
Jesus, giver of law
Why did Jesus speak so harshly to these men? He did it because the Pharisees were full of their own self-righteousness:
“You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts… Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Luke 16:15,18)
It’s one thing to divorce your wife because she becomes displeasing; it’s another to convince yourself that you are righteous for doing it!
Let’s put this all together: Some Pharisees had come to test Jesus on the subject of divorce. Jesus responds by honoring marriage. “Marriage is a gift from God that is older than your law.” But these guys aren’t interested. They’d much rather brag about their legal brilliance. So Jesus speaks the only language they understand and gives them a legal smack down. “You want law? Here’s some law for you. You have heard it said, but I say unto you…” Game over. You lose. Those who came confident of their own self-righteousness went home silenced.
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. (Romans 3:19)
One of the law’s purposes is to silence the self-righteous and that’s what happened here. Christ’s law silenced boasting mouths.
But does that mean Jesus has it in for divorced people? Does that mean he views them as unforgiveable sinners or that he rules out the possibility of remarriage? To answer that question let’s visit a well in Samaria where Jesus is talking to a divorced lady.
Jesus, giver of grace
The woman at the well has a shameful reputation, which is why she has come to the well in the middle of the day. She hopes no one will be there. But Jesus is there and he offers her living water. At first she doesn’t understand what Jesus wants to give her, so Jesus begins to talk about her need. He speaks of her secret shame:
“You are right when 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)
By the standard that Christ preached to the Pharisees, the woman at the well was an adulterer. In fact, she was a repeat adulterer. She was the adulterer of all adulterers. Yet Jesus never mentions this. He says nothing of the law. Instead, he gives her grace and she is radically changed. She becomes the world’s first foreign evangelist (see John 4:29).
Do you see the difference? To those confident of their own righteousness, Jesus gives law. But to those living with shame and condemnation, Jesus gives grace.
The genius of Jesus
The genius of Jesus is that he meets every one of us at our point of need. The self-righteous need law; the hurting need grace. Surely his heart is to give grace to everyone, but the self-righteous won’t receive it. They’re too busy boasting about how good they are. They need the law to silence them first.
If you are the sort of person who thinks of yourself as better than others – maybe you are quick to judge divorcees as sinners – then you need to hear the law that Jesus preached. Start with Matthew 7:1 (“Do not judge, or you too will be judged”) and read on from there.
But if you’re the sort of person who has made bad choices or suffered from the sins of others, then you need the grace that Jesus gives. You need a revelation of God our Father who loves us and does not treat us as our sins deserve.
Perhaps you’ve had five husbands (or wives) and the person you’re now with is not your spouse. Maybe you’re like the woman at the well, hiding a secret shame. You don’t need the law to tell you that you’ve made mistakes. You need the supernatural grace of God that will empower you to sin no more.
Some people marry and remarry because they think marriage will solve all their problems. This is a mistake. Drink from that well and you will be thirsty again. But those who drink from Christ’s well will never thirst. He alone satisfies the deepest longings of your soul.