Larry Cunningham in an article in Reader’s Digest a number of years ago told about the time he was visiting friends. While there, they received a telephone call from their recently married daughter. After several tense minutes on the phone, the mother told the father to pick up the extension. The newlyweds had had their first big fight. In a few moments, the father rejoined us and tersely explained, “Said she wanted to come home.” “What did you tell her?” I asked. “Told her she was home.”
Matthew 19:5-6 quotes Jesus as saying, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:5-6). Here, Jesus quotes from Genesis 2, establishing once again that marriage is not a new institution nor simply a cultural one, but a spiritual one. It’s not just about a ‘piece of paper,’ but it’s an acknowledgment that the God of heaven has joined you together.
Each culture has struggled with the role of marriage, and they did as well in Jesus’ day. In Matthew 5:31, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ In fact, the Pharisees bring this up in Matthew 19 when, in expressing disagreement with what Jesus said, noted, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7). So, since this is mentioned in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19, permit me if you will to help understand.
Turn with me to Deut. 24:1-4
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
Granted, this is a heavy passage. Many have interpreted this to be a way to get out of a marriage, but this is not the case. This is dealing with the matter of adultery and how divorcing someone improperly will lead to adultery. The whole passage hinges on the understanding of a phrase found in verse 1: “he has found some indecency in her.” What is this indecency? The indecency was not adultery, because adultery was punishable by death. But it may have been some indecent act that led up to adultery that brought disgrace and betrayal upon the union. In this passage, we see not an excuse for divorce but the potential harm and evil that comes from it. It serves as a warning that divorce can bring about adultery if a marriage ever takes place.
You may say, “Well, why did God allow this, if he’s so against it?” Jesus enlightens, “Because of your hardness of heart, but it was not so from the beginning.” God gave that provision to protect women from the death penalty and to warn men not to give up on their marriages too quickly.
Now, obviously, while we do not do the death penalty for adultery in 2008, do we see any relevance? Absolutely. God put all these issues and warnings in place so we would take his institution of marriage seriously. It is not something to trivialize or trifle with. We are to leave our father and mother and to join with our spouses so the two will become one flesh! Jesus says in Matthew 5:32, “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Why sexual immorality? Because the trust and the bond has been shattered. Does God want us to reconcile, if possible? Absolutely. Is it difficult if not next to impossible under those circumstances? Believe it!