By Paul Earnhart
The love and relationship of marriage is so precious and vital to the human family and to God’s moral and spiritual purposes for them that it is secured behind the high walls of a radical covenant. In our sin and rebellion we have strained against it as if it were a prison rather than a refuge. The marriage covenant as God has ordained it is intended not to deny fulfillment but to make it possible, and to protect the profound joys of marriage against the stupidities of lust selfishness.
In the waning weeks of Jesus’ teaching ministry his enemies had become increasingly desperate in their efforts to publicly destroy him. The Pharisees caught him in the territory of Herod Antipas who had recently divorced his wife in order to marry Herodias and sought to put him in an embarrassing bind by a question about the lawfulness of divorce for every cause (Matt. 19:3-9). It is possible that they were seeking to put Jesus into the same moral strait that had cost John the Baptist his life, but even more likely that they simply wanted him impaled between the radical disagreements of the various Jewish sects. Perhaps, too, having heard what Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:32), they were fishing for a statement so stringent that it would disenchant the masses who had so far followed him so gladly.
What the Pharisees asked was, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” It was a hotly disputed question among the rabbinical schools, one made even hotter by the prevalence of divorce. All based their arguments on Deuteronomy 24, Shammai declaring the unseemly thing” to be unchastity, Hillel finding in the same phrase much broader causes, and Akiba, more loosely than all, resting his case on “if she find no favor in his eyes” (i.e. see a more beautiful woman). Flavious Josephus characterized the law as saying, “He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever, (and many such causes happen among men,) let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife anymore” (Antiquities, IV, viii, 23).
In his response Jesus makes no reference to the teaching of the rabbinical schools but takes his inquirers directly to the Scripture. He first appeals behind Deuteronomy 24 to God’s original intent for marriage “in the beginning” (Gen. 1:27; 2:24; 5:2). God “made them male and female,” created the two of them for marriage, and destined them out of creation for each other.
The Lord’s second statement is that they become one in the closest possible union. “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” said Adam (Gen. 2:23), and God said, “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19:5).
It is abundantly clear that Jesus viewed Genesis 2:24 as a divine ordinance for a life-long union between a man and a woman. The thrust of what he was quoting from Genesis became obvious, even to the Pharisees, and his conclusion inevitable: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 9:6). Divorce by its very nature destroys the permanent bond of intimate love which God intended for every husband and wife.
Jesus had appealed from Deuteronomy to Genesis. The Pharisees appealed from Genesis to Deuteronomy (Matt. 19:7). If marriage was intended to be so permanent, they said, why did Moses “command to give a bill of divorcement, and to put her away?” Jesus “plains Moses’ ordinance (Deut. 24) as a concession which God made to Israel’s hardness of heart, and then runs the Pharisees straight back to Genesis: “but from the beginning it hath not been so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery; and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery” (19:8,9).
Their question had been, “Is it lawful to divorce your wife for every cause?” His answer was, “No, not for any cause save fornication. All other divorce leads to adultery. That’s how God intended it from the beginning.”
In responding to the Pharisees’ question about the lawfulness of divorce for every cause, Jesus spanned the ages. His answer goes to the very nature of marriage as God first designed it – not for Jews, or for Gentiles, believers, or unbelievers, but for men and women of every race and age. The covenant of marriage was given to man generally and not to Adam and Eve uniquely. It was designed to meet man’s innate need for a mate and to provide a secure haven for the children of the race to come to birth and be nurtured to maturity. The union of a man and woman in marriage was to be an intimate fusing of two personalities into a profound oneness. Jesus, in appealing to Moses’ record of the beginning of things, is answering the Pharisees in terms of God’s original purpose. Marriage, as the product of divine creation, arises from the holy nature of God and addresses the fixed realities of the nature of man. It cannot, therefore, be changed at a whim, and any effort on our part to do so puts us hopelessly at war with both the nature of God and the nature of the universe he created.
From the beginning, God’s rule of men has been universal (Psa. 22:28) and all men have been expected to worship and serve him (Psa. 22:27; 96:1,8-9; Acts 17:26-27). The basis of God’s moral rule is his own unchanging righteousness (Psa. 119:137,142; Mal. 3:6). The eternal moral principles governing marriage and sexual intimacy have been in place “from the beginning.” If for reasons of his own God has suffered some momentary exceptions to these unchanging principles, those exceptions do not invalidate the principles. They have come to absolute expression in the universal reign of Christ (Jn. 1:14,17; 17:2; 28:18). The! Son of God does not have one set of moral standards by which to rule alien sinners and another by which to govern saints. His moral expectations for kingdom citizens represent his expectations for all men. They are the standard of righteousness to which all men are called. If we submit to Christ they will guide us (Matt. 7:26), if we reject him they will judge us (Jn. 12:48; Matt. 7:26). “. . . knowing this, that law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and unruly, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for abusers of themselves with men, for menstealers, for liars, for false swearers, and if there be any other things contrary to the sound doctrine: according to the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:9-11). God’s original design for marriage and his consequent attitude toward divorce, must then be normative for men and women of all times.
It is on the issue of universality that the most serious effort has been made to break the force of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage. This approach says that Matthew 19:9 applies only to the Christian and not to the unconverted. The fact that Jesus’ words were first spoken in answer to a question asked by unconverted Jews should raise some serious questions about such a position. The even more critical fact that Jesus appealed to God’s original and universal marriage law as the foundation for his answer ought to raise even more doubt. The truth is that the context of Matthew 19.9 serves to leave the Lord’s “whosover” just as universal as it appears on its face to be. As to the extension in history of God’s original marriage ordinance, Jesus makes clear that what God did “in the beginning” has been in force “from the beginning.” As brother Franklin Puckett once observed, “On the basis of the fact that we have found this statement appealed to under every dispensation of time, I conclude that the law was a universal aspect and in reality was the will of God unto all men under all ages and dispensations” (The Sower, 12-76).
But, it is argued, a different law of marriage must have been in effect for everyone after Adam since not only divorce but even polygamy was tolerated by God in men like Abraham, David and others. Jesus addressed that issue in his discussion with the Pharisees and found no difficulty in saying that, whatever God may have tolerated in the past, that there had never been and would not be any other answer out of God’s will about divorce than that which was given in the beginning and which he was giving now – for one cause only – fornication. This is his answer to his detractors, not because they are Jews but because they are men and subject to the rule of their Creator.
Those who use the aberrant marriage practices of Old Testament people to prove the existence of what they imagine to be a separate moral law for those who are not Christians are yet not willing to receive polygamous marriages into the kingdom of God though they want to receive the marriages of those who have been divorced and remarried for every cause. They have yet to explain what the exact parameters of this second tier marriage covenant is, whether it authorizes divorce for every cause or certain specified causes, whether it authorizes only monogamous or both monogamous and polygamous marriages. This is not an academic question. If their position is true, only by knowing exactly what God’s marriage law to the unsaved is can we know what relationships ought to be received without question when they come to the kingdom of Christ. Otherwise, we are acting merely on whim, not principle.
The central problem of this position is that at best this other, different, moral law exists only as an inference and that far from a necessary one. It appears to be a construct borne of the anguish of a tragic social problem. We are not untouched. Sin ravages. But for Jesus there never had been nor ever would be any other will of God for marriage (and divorce) than that which he stated so explicitly to the Pharisees. We need to rest confidently and trustingly in what the Lord of our lives has taught us, about his and all other matters.
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 1, pp. 7-8
January 4, 1990