MDR: Matthew 5, Part 1

As promised some pages ago, we now need to interpret the words of Christ in light of what we’ve learned from Paul. We need to avoid the temptation to treat Paul as less worthy of respect than Christ. Rather, the Bible does not contradict itself, and 1 Corinthians 7 teaches what it teaches. We can’t ignore its words to force a presumed conclusion on it.

And so, we turn to the Sermon on the Mount.

(Matt. 5:27-48) “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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.

33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This quotation is perhaps too long, but it’s for a point. In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is addressing Jews who are under the Law of Moses. And Jesus goes through several familiar teachings in the Law of Moses and shows how the Law had been misinterpreted in then current society.

Moses never taught “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Rather, Moses taught “Love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18). But this plain teaching had been distorted and perverted in the First Century. Jesus called his listeners back to the original meaning of the command.

In each case, Jesus was neither adding to nor taking away from the Law. He was rather showing how Moses’ teachings should have been understood. Ultimately, Jesus’ point was to show how people in the coming Kingdom of Heaven were being called to live — to a standard anticipated by the Law and the Prophets but not fully realized until the coming of the Christ (Matt. 5:17-20).

The key point here is that Jesus is not legislating new laws in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus did not come to do that. Rather, Jesus came to free us from law.

So let’s now focus on Jesus’ instruction on divorce-

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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.”

Plainly, Jesus’ point is something like this: Moses taught you not to commit adultery-but you divorce your wives and think that this avoids violating the marriage covenant. But I tell you that the divorce itself violates the marriage covenant as much as adultery does — because after you put your wife away, neither you nor she can keep the covenant that you made!

Recall that Jesus is interpreting Deuteronomy 24, which states:

(Deut. 24:1-4) If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.

The Jewish rabbis disputed over the meaning of this passage, and the disagreement was well known in Jesus’ day. First, notice that the primary point of the passage is to deny a husband the right to remarry his wife after he has put her away and she has married another man.

Almost incidentally, Moses refers to the first divorce as being based on “something indecent” about the wife. The second divorce is because the husband “dislikes her.” The rabbis debated whether divorce was permitted only due to some indecency or due to merely disliking the wife. The meaning of “something indecent” is much debated, even today.

Jesus clearly takes the more conservative position, saying the standard is fornication, very likely Jesus’ interpretation of “something indecent.” He is not making new law.

But as shown by the context, Jesus is also addressing the Ten Commandments, and concludes that Moses was indirectly addressing “Thou shalt not commit adultery” in this passage.

If a man divorces his wife to marry another woman, then he’s committed adultery with the other woman in his heart long before he puts his first wife away. He is, therefore, an adulterer. Moreover, if a man “puts away” his wife by breaking his marriage vows, he is a covenant breaker, and hence an adulterer.

As God hates divorces and wants his disciples to honor their covenants, he expects divorced couples to reconcile whenever possible, just as Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 7:11. Although a couple is divorced, they are still bound by their covenant and should honor it if possible by reconciliation and repenting of the sin that led to the divorce.

However, if the wife remarries, she makes reconciliation impossible. Moreover, so does her new husband. Both have made it impossible for the couple to reconcile. In fact, once the second marriage occurs, reconciliation can never happen without violating Deuteronomy 24. Hence, the second marriage makes the first covenant impossible of performance. And covenant breaking is adultery.

This, I think, is at least the heart of Jesus’ point. Remarriage is not sin (Paul said so), but remarriage that prevents a possible reconciliation is. Of course, not all marriages have any hope of reconciliation, but many do. Therefore, it is very unwise, even wrong, to quickly remarry after a divorce. Marriages “on the rebound” are notoriously unlikely to work, and they often occur before any serious effort can be made to work through the problems that led to the first divorce.

After all, divorces happen for reasons, and sometimes the reason is that the divorcing spouse has ungodly attitudes or other issues that will cause the second marriage to fail as well. From a pastoral standpoint, the parties to a divorce should be honest and vulnerable enough to do some self-discovery before entering into another marriage. They may well find that once they learn the causes of the first divorce, they can reconcile. Or even if reconciliation is unrealistic, they’ll make a much better second marriage.


Eph. 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast.”; Rom. 3:27-28 “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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4 Responses to MDR: Matthew 5, Part 1

  1. Eric D says:

    jay, with all due respect it seems that you are contradicting yourself by saying that remarriage that that prevents a possible reconciliation is sin -then just before that you say that paul says that remarriage is not sin – paul does not give any indication or any exceptions to somehow remarriage being sin (if no possible reconcilitation) – if he does then please explain how

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Eric,

    I wrote,

    Remarriage is not sin (Paul said so), but remarriage that prevents a possible reconciliation is. Of course, not all marriages have any hope of reconciliation, but many do. Therefore, it is very unwise, even wrong, to quickly remarry after a divorce. Marriages “on the rebound” are notoriously unlikely to work, and they often occur before any serious effort can be made to work through the problems that led to the first divorce.

    Paul urged reconciliation. If reconciliation is possible (not in a theoretical sense, but in reality), remarrying frustrates Paul's injunction to reconcile if possible (1 Cor 7:11).

    That being the case, a second marriage that follows on the heels of a divorce will sometimes be wrong — if it frustrates a reconciliation that was realistically possible.

    I've known couples who divorced, made no effort to reconcile, and then later remarried. To make the second marriage work, they had to work at it. They later concluded that if they'd worked as hard on the first marriage, there never would have been a divorce.

    On the other hand, I've known of plenty of divorces where reconciliation was quite impossible. I mean, I'd never suggest a woman reconcile with a wife beater.

    Now, the lines aren't easily drawn. Sometimes they only become clear in hindsight. I just think we have to take Paul's instructions on reconciliation seriously.

    For example, sometimes a woman divorces a cheating husband even though he genuinely wants to repent — and he actually does so. Her pride requires the divorce. When that happens, I think God would want her to surrender her pride and try to reconcile. If she remarries instead, she's frustrating God's will, and that's wrong.

    That doesn't mean that all cheating husbands are entitled to another chance. Some are jerks and shouldn't be reconciled with. Rather, the approach can't be legal or rule-based (and I'm a lawyer!).

    Therefore, if I were counseling a couple that I thought could successfully reconcile, I'd strongly urge them not to remarry until they've given reconciliation every chance. I think that's what God would want, and I think it's implicit in 1 Cor 7.

    Moreover, I think it's part of what Jesus had in mind in Matthew 5.

    But I also think that the idea can easily become seriously perverted if we try to apply it legalistically. As much as we'd like nice clear answers, the human heart often doesn't lend itself to that sort of analysis.

  3. Eric D says:

    good explanation, but i still have a problem w/ your cheating spouse example in which it seems, that the innocent spouse would have to try and reconcile with someone that has cheated – some people just could not deal with something like this and it could possibly cause even more problems in the marriage- — i think you're right on point that the lines aren't easily drawn on whether or not reconciliation is possible – it just raised a red flag to me when i first read your post which seemed as if remarriage in certain circumstances was sin ——– and even if you are right, are you saying that the sin would be that the divorced spouse remarried w/out trying reconciliation OR was it sin when the spouse initially got the divorce w/out pursuing reconciliation?

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Eric,

    You asked,

    even if you are right, are you saying that the sin would be that the divorced spouse remarried w/out trying reconciliation OR was it sin when the spouse initially got the divorce w/out pursuing reconciliation?

    As I mentioned above, not every cheating husband deserves even the effort of reconciliation. The point is that some do. And sometimes pride or the desire for vengeance gets in the way of a reconciliation that is possible and would be good for both spouses (and the children).

    If someone fails to reconcile out of a sense of pride or vengeance, they’ve sinned, I think. There are plenty of reasons why reconciliation may not even be desirable, but when it is, I think the spouses need to try.

    Whether the reconciliation failed before or after the divorce. Paul was speaking of reconciliation after the marriage ends. And most marriages end before the divorce papers are filed.

    Many states prohibit a marriage for 6 months or so after a divorce, for this very reason — to prevent remarriages while reconciliation might be possible and foolish marriages on the rebound. It’s a sound principle, I think.

    Without trying to make an absolute rule out of it, it’s just not a good idea to remarry shortly after a divorce and, on the whole, we should try harder to seek reconciliation than we do — acknowledging that some marriages shouldn’t be reconciled.

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