Matthew 19:1-12Theme: An unbreakable covenant.This week’s lessons teach us about the permanence of marriage. LessonWhere do we come into this picture of marriage and divorce? We can acknowledge the Bible’s high standard and still struggle with how to do what is required. Or we can struggle over what to do when we fail to live up to Jesus’ teaching. Many people are being hurt by situations involving estrangement, divorce, or remarriage. I want to close by saying a few things about the application of these standards.
First, these are standards for Christians, not for the world. This means that believers must not try to impose them on other people generally. We believe that following Christian standards would tend on the whole to make men and women happier than they would be apart from them, and we can point with justified alarm to the weakening of the family and the decay of lasting relationships in today’s society. But the majority of people are not Christians, and it would be both wrong and irrational to expect them to lead Christian lives.
Second, because there are many persons who become Christians after they have been married and divorced, sometimes more than once, we must never forget that their previous conduct along with all their past is wiped clean by their conversion to Christ and that they therefore have the right to marry for the first time as Christians. The church at Corinth must have been made up largely of persons in this category, for Paul wrote that many of them were fornicators, adulterers, and idolaters before their conversion (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Still he terms them “new creatures” in Christ. When a new creature in Christ meets another new creature in Christ and God leads them to each other, do they not have a right to marry and establish a Christian home regardless of their previous marital history?
Third, there are cases in which one of the spouses is a Christian and the other is not. What is the Christian to do in these circumstances? This was a situation Paul faced not only in Corinth but in other cities, and his advice was this. First, the Christian should remain with the unbelieving spouse if at all possible, for, he says, how do you know that you will not be the means by which God will save your husband or wife (1 Cor. 7:16)? It is possible, however, that the unsaved spouse will not stay with the Christian. If that is the case, Paul’s second point is to let the unbeliever go. How can the Christian stop it in any case? This is mere realism.
Fourth, we live in an imperfect, sinful world and there will always be circumstances in which a Christian will have to choose the lesser of two evils. In some circumstances, this could be a divorce. For instance, we may imagine a woman married to a brute of a husband, a man who spends his money on drinking or gambling and then deserts his wife while she must raise and educate the children. Under the laws of the United States, it is entirely possible that the man might return just when the children are ready to go to college and claim the money the wife has saved and waste it. In a situation like this, I believe it would be right for the wife to initiate the divorce, even if she is a Christian, since her chief responsibility would be to the children and their future at this point.
Finally, it is true that Christians who marry out of God’s will and get divorced often remarry (frequently to Christians) and that God seems in grace often to sanctify and bless the second marriages. Does this mean that God modifies his standards? No. But it does mean that divorce and remarriage, as bad as they may be, are not unforgivable and that God is always willing to begin again with us, wherever we are or whatever we have done, and bring blessing. The churches should never be closed to such people, and Christians above all persons should be understanding of others and show mercy.
There is hardly a matter in today’s church that is treated with more laxity than issues of divorce and remarriage. But identifying with and seeking to help people who have failed in their marriages does not mean lowering the standards. We will never be much of a help if we do.3
3 This last section is borrowed with changes from an earlier book of mine that has been out of print for years: The Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), pp. 139-141. A new edition of this book is available, on ReformedResources.org
Why is it inappropriate to hold non-Christians to the standards of marriage presented in this passage?
What does Dr. Boice suggest for the new Christian who is married to a non-believer?
PrayerPray for your brothers and sisters in Christ who are in difficult marriages that they may depend on the Lord for wisdom and trust His sovereignty.
Fourth of July Sale! Starting today, and going through Monday, July 7th, Dr. James Boice’s commentary, The Sermon on the Mount, is 25% off of regular price! For a limited time this commentary is only $12.75. Get it now, before the sale ends on Monday!
Exciting changes are coming to Think and Act Biblically! James Boice’s ministry continues today in multiple media formats, and the Think and Act Biblically devotional is only one. Starting Monday, July 7th, we will be syncing the radio broadcast The Bible Study Hour with this devotional. That means that the message you can listen to on Sunday will be expanded and further exegeted throughout the following week. Keep your eyes open for that change, and listen to The Bible Study Hour!