Divorce and Remarriage: Covenant, commitment, grace and forgiveness

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Matthew 19:3-9

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called Hot Button Topics, and we are looking at a number of issues which the culture views very differently than what we see in God’s word. So far in the series we have looked at abortion, assisted suicide, alcohol, racism and living together. Today we are going to look at the issue of divorce and remarriage.

This is a very challenging topic, because it is one that affects a lot of us. It is also a very sensitive topic, because it is one which has caused many of us so much pain. But in a culture which largely supports no fault divorce for any reason at any time, it is essential that we see what God says in his word about divorce and remarriage. (Read Matthew 19:3-9)

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As we begin this very difficult topic today, I want you to take special note of the subtitle of today’s message: covenant, commitment, grace and forgiveness. We will talk about the covenant and commitment aspects of marriage in just a moment, but I want to begin where we will also end today – with the emphasis on grace and forgiveness.

We all sin, and we all experience many failures in life, but perhaps none are so painful as the failures we experience in marriage. No one enters a marriage expecting it to go bad. And when things do go bad with the person you loved enough to marry, that adds up to a lot of pain.

I know that a number of us here today have experienced divorce and remarriage, and so we need to hear this word of grace and forgiveness right up front today. Jesus died on the cross for all our sins, and he offers forgiveness and new life to everyone who puts their trust in him. God’s grace is greater than all our sin, which means we can bring him all of our sins, all of our pain, all of our failures and all of our troubles. Please know that God can make something beautiful and good out of your life no matter what you are going through, no matter what is in your past.

Today we are going to look at what the Bible tells us about divorce and remarriage. Some of it you may already know. Some of it may shock you. Some of it may even dismay you. But once again, please know that through it all, God loves you, and he offers you grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

1) Biblical definition of marriage:

Let’s begins with a biblical definition of marriage that that comes directly from Jesus’ words that we just read in Matthew 19:

“Marriage was created by God as a sacred, covenant relationship between a man and a woman based on a public vow of lifetime faithfulness.”

Every word of this definition is important, and as we look more closely at Jesus’ words here in Matthew 19, you will see that this is indeed how the Bible defines marriage. So, let’s look at this definition in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19 together.

   – created by God (Matthew 19:4)

First of all, marriage was created by God. Jesus says in Matthew 19:4: “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female?’” (Matthew 19:4) God is the one who created marriage in the beginning. If we’re going to talk rightly about marriage, divorce and remarriage, we must start here. Marriage was created by God, and so he is the only one who can tell us what marriage is and how it is supposed to work.

   – a sacred, covenant relationship (Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:32)

Secondly, marriage is a sacred, covenant relationship. That’s what Jesus says in verse 5: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” (Matthew 19:5) In marriage a new relationship is formed. The man and woman leave their respective families and form a new family. It is God who joins them together as one flesh. There is no marriage without God’s involvement.

The New Testament goes on to talk about marriage as a picture of Christ and the church. In Ephesians 5 Paul explains how the husband-wife relationship reflects the relationship between Jesus and the church. He even quotes the same verse from Genesis that Jesus did about the two becoming one flesh. And then he says in verse 32: “This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:32)

In other words, it’s not that Christ and the church are a picture of marriage. It’s the other way around. Marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. There is no more sacred relationship than the covenant relationship between Christ and the church. Human marriage is temporary, whereas the relationship between Christ and the church is eternal.

Marriage is a sacred, covenant relationship. Marriage is a relationship where God joins the man and the woman together as one flesh, and marriage is a picture of Christ and the church.

   – between a man and a woman (Genesis 1:27, 2:24)

Thirdly, marriage is between a man and a woman. Here in Matthew 19 Jesus points us back to two Scriptures in the book of Genesis. Genesis is the book of beginnings. It is the book of foundations. And one of the foundational principles of marriage is that it is between a man and a woman.

First, Jesus points us back to Genesis 1:27 which says: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27) This is now the fourth time in this series that we have come back to this verse speaking of human beings created in God’s image. We already looked at this verse in relation to abortion, assisted suicide and racism. Today we see it figures into our discussion of marriage, and it will also be a part of our last two hot button topics of homosexuality and transgender. That makes this a key verse for six out of eight hot button topics.

Jesus also points us back to Genesis 2:24 which records the first man and woman coming together in marriage: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24)

Marriage is between a man and a woman. We will spend more time talking about this aspect of marriage next week when we talk about homosexuality and caring for those with same sex attraction, but for now let’s just note that it is part of the biblical definition of marriage as given to us by Jesus in Matthew 19.

   – based on a public vow of lifetime faithfulness (Matthew 19:6)

Finally, marriage is based on a public vow of lifetime faithfulness. Jesus says in Matthew 19:6: “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Matthew 19:6) This brings us to the heart of marriage – the public vow of lifetime faithfulness between a man and a woman. I like what Walter Wangerin says about this vow in relation to marriage:

“Listen: marriage begins when two people make the clear, unqualified promise to be faithful, each to the other, until the end of their days…. That vow forms the foundation of the relationship to be built upon it hereafter. A promise made, a promise witnessed, a promise heard, remembered, and trusted – this is the groundwork of marriage.” (Wangerin, As for Me and My House, p. 19)

So that’s our biblical definition of marriage, drawn directly from Jesus’ words in Matthew 19: “Marriage was created by God as a sacred, covenant relationship between a man and a woman based on a public vow of lifetime faithfulness.” God created marriage, and so only God has the right to define marriage. We can try to change the definition, but then it is no longer marriage but something else. “Marriage was created by God as a sacred, covenant relationship between a man and a woman based on a public vow of lifetime faithfulness.”

2) Two ways to break the marriage covenant:

Now that we know what marriage is, we can begin to talk about divorce and remarriage. Because marriage is a sacred, covenant relationship based on a public vow of lifetime faithfulness, Scripture tells us that there are two ways we can break the marriage covenant.

   – Adultery breaks the covenant of sexual faithfulness (Ex 20:14)

The first way is by adultery. Adultery breaks the part of the covenant having to do with sexual faithfulness. One of the Ten Commandments is: “You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14) Why is this one of the big ten? Because marriage is foundational. Marriage is foundational to human civilization, and marriage is based on a public vow of lifetime faithfulness. Adultery breaks the covenant of sexual faithfulness, thus betraying the first part of the marriage vows.

   – Divorce breaks the covenant of lifetime commitment (Malachi 2:14-16; Matthew 19:7-8)

The second way we can break the marriage covenant is by divorce. Adultery breaks the covenant of sexual faithfulness. Divorce breaks the covenant of lifetime commitment.

In the book of Malachi in the Old Testament, God addresses the problem of divorce among his people. He says through the prophet: “The LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the LORD made them one?… So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. ‘I hate divorce,’… says the LORD Almighty.” (Malachi 2:14-16)

Notice that he calls divorce “breaking faith.” Why is it breaking faith? Because you are breaking the covenant of lifetime faithfulness. The lifetime aspect is emphasized even more when talks about breaking faith “with the wife of your youth.” Now some of us get married older than others, but whenever you marry, that’s the wife of your youth. In other words, we are supposed to keep this covenant of marriage for a lifetime. That’s what marriage is. The vow is “until death do us part,” not “until divorce do us part.”

The Pharisees asked Jesus in Matthew 19: “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” (Matthew 19:7-8) In other words divorce was not God’s idea. Divorce is our idea. God permitted it because our hearts were hard. But it was not his intention from the beginning.

The marriage covenant is a public vow of lifetime faithfulness, and so there are two ways to break the marriage covenant. Adultery breaks the covenant of sexual faithfulness. Divorce breaks the covenant of lifetime commitment.

3) You can be divorced and still married in God’s eyes

Now let’s move on to our third statement on divorce and remarriage. You can be divorced and still married in God’s eyes. Let me say that again. You can be divorced in the eyes of the state; you can have a divorce certificate – signed, sealed and notarized – that says to the whole world that you’re divorced; and you can still be married in God’s eyes.

   – Only God can separate what he has joined (Matthew 19:6)

Why is that? Because only God can separate what he has joined. That’s what Jesus said in Matthew 19:6: “Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Matthew 19:6) The state does not join you in marriage. God is the one who joins you in marriage. The state only affirms what God has done.

The state does not join you in marriage, and therefore the state does not have the authority to uncouple you from marriage. Only God can separate what he has joined. God created the rules of how marriage and divorce work, and he decides who is married and who is not.

   – In this case remarriage would constitute adultery (Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:2-3)

So, in this case – when you are divorced in the eyes of the state but still married in God’s eyes – in this case remarriage would constitute adultery. Why? Because you are still married to your original husband or wife. That’s why we have passages in Scripture like the following.

Jesus says in Mark 10: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12) And again in Luke 16: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18) Or we read in Romans 7: “A married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage. So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man.” (Romans 7:2-3)

Now that does not mean if you remarried wrongly that you are continuing in adultery. Once you remarry and that new relationship is consummated, the former relationship is officially dissolved. You are no longer married to your original spouse. You are married to your new spouse. You commit adultery when you enter into the new marriage. You do not continue in adultery by continuing in the new marriage. God wants you to continue in the new marriage – which is a new sacred, covenant relationship based on a new public vow of lifetime faithfulness.

What are all these passages saying? You can be divorced by the state and still married in God’s eyes, in which case remarriage would constitute adultery.

4) When are divorce and remarriage allowed?

So, when are divorce and remarriage allowed? The Bible speaks of two incidences.

   – in the case of marital unfaithfulness (Matthew 5:32, 19:3,9)

First of all, in the case of marital unfaithfulness. Jesus addresses this exception two times. First, he says in Matthew 5 in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32) This passage is saying the same thing as the passages we just read, but notice Jesus includes an exception clause here: “except for marital unfaithfulness.” The word translated “marital unfaithfulness” here is a word that refers to sexual immorality. The context here is marriage, and so marital unfaithfulness here would refer to adultery.

Jesus says the same thing in Matthew 19: “Some Pharisees asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?… Jesus replied, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3,9) The Pharisees asked about easy divorce, divorce for any and every reason. Jesus replied, “No, only one reason.” If you divorce your wife for any reason other than marital unfaithfulness and marry someone else, you commit adultery. Why? Because God did not authorize that divorce. You are still married in God’s eyes.

   – in the case of an unbeliever divorcing a believer (1 Corinthians 7:12-16)

Now the Bible does give one other case where remarriage is allowed after divorce, and that is when an unbelieving spouse divorces a believing spouse. We read in 1 Corinthians 7: “If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him…. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.” (1 Corinthians 7:12-15)

The Bible says a believer should only marry another believer, but sometimes believers marry unbelievers anyways, or sometimes two unbelievers marry, and then one of them becomes a believer. Either way, if you are a believer married to an unbeliever, the Bible says you should not divorce. You shouldn’t marry an unbeliever, but once you do, you are married, and you should stay married.

However, if the unbeliever chooses to divorce the believing spouse, then you are no longer bound in such circumstances. The divorce is legitimate in God’s eyes, and you would be free to remarry.

So, the Bible gives us these two instances where divorce and remarriage are allowed – in the case of marital unfaithfulness, and in the case of an unbeliever divorcing a believer.

   – Otherwise, you should stay married, remain unmarried or be reconciled (1 Cor 7:10-11)

Otherwise, the Bible says you should say married, remain unmarried or be reconciled. That’s what we read in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: “A wife must not separate from [divorce] her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)

What is 1 Corinthians 7 saying? If you are married, you should say married. Get counseling if you need to, but work through your issues together, stay committed to each other, remain faithful to your marriage vows. In fact, I would say even if your spouse has committed adultery, you should first try to work things out. It is far better if you can work through your issues together and rebuild your relationship than to divorce. If you are married, you should say married.

But if you do get divorced, then you should remain unmarried or be reconciled to your spouse. Why? Because you are still married to your spouse in God’s eyes. Therefore, to remarry someone else would be committing adultery. But to be reconciled to your spouse would just be returning to the marriage that God never ended.

God allows divorce and remarriage in cases of marital unfaithfulness or when an unbelieving spouse leaves a believing spouse. Otherwise, you should stay married, remain unmarried or be reconciled.

5) What about abuse?

The question rightly comes up, “What about abuse?” Is abuse a valid reason for divorce and remarriage. Let me say three things in closing about abuse.

First of all, no abuse of any kind is ever acceptable in marriage or any other relationship. There are many kinds of abuse – verbal, physical, emotional, and sexual. None of these forms of abuse are acceptable, and no levels of abuse are acceptable. No abuse of any kind is ever acceptable in marriage or any other relationship.

Secondly, a person in an abusive situation should do three things: 1) Call the police; 2) Get away from the abuser; 3) Get long-term help. Abuse is a scary situation, and sometimes it is not safe just to walk away. You need to talk to a friend, talk to your church, call an abuse hotline, but you need to find a safe way to exit the situation. You need to call the police if there is physical or sexual abuse involved. That is a crime, and it needs to be reported. And yes, you are going to need some long-term help and counseling.

Thirdly, although Scripture does not give clear grounds for divorce and remarriage in the case of abuse, all agree you should separate from the abuser and put your safety and the safety of your children first. Some pastors and Bible teachers believe that abuse constitutes a third valid ground for divorce and remarriage, although Scripture does not clearly say this. However, all would agree that you need to get out of the abusive situation, which in our culture would usually involve some form of legal separation in order to protect yourself and your children.

CONCLUSION: Marriage was created by God as a sacred, covenant relationship between a man and a woman based on a public vow of lifetime faithfulness. Unfortunately, we have found ways to break that covenant relationship. Fortunately, God gives us detailed instructions about divorce and remarriage and offers us grace and forgiveness when we fail.

God hates divorce, but he does not hate divorced people. He loves divorced people, and he hurts with and for divorced people.

And the same grace and forgiveness God offers to you, he asks you to extend to others, including and especially your spouse or ex-spouse. Even in cases of adultery, divorce should never be the first option. Grace, forgiveness and reconciliation are always the first options.

Everything God tells us, he tells us for our good and for our protection, and we do best when we follow his word. So, let me encourage all of us this morning to hold strong the public vow of lifetime faithfulness at the heart of marriage. And let me assure all of us this morning, that through Jesus’s death on the cross, God has plenty of grace and forgiveness to cover all of our failures and all of our sins.

© Ray Fowler

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Click here for more messages from the Hot Button Topics series.
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Recommended Resources on Divorce and Remarriage:

Books: (* = highly recommended)
*His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-proof Marriage by Willard F. Harley, Jr.
Love & Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs
*Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage by Jim Newheiser
*Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas
Suddenly Single by Kathey Batey

Resources:
Divorce Care: https://www.divorcecare.org/
Marriage Savers: http://www.marriagesavers.org/

Messages
For audio of the messages in this series: pccflorida.org/sermons/
For full text manuscripts of the messages in this series: rayfowler.org/sermons/hot-button-topics/