Covenant and Marriage: God’s Answer to Divorce – Matt 5:31-32


There are few things in life more painful than divorce.  Some of you know this a because you have walked though divorce or someone you have loved has been through it, or you are a child of divorced parents.  This relational tearing is a mix of sorrow, loss, deep hurt, guilt, disappointment, outrage, and regret.  The death of a spouse is usually clean pain.  Divorce is dirty pain.  It is often a long time coming, and with divorce proceedings and children visitation rights, the pain continues for a long time.  It impacts on other relationships – friends and family.  The stats

This morning as we broach this subject I want to do two things: (1) hold unreservedly to the scripture teaching about divorce; (2) love and walk with people who are suffering under the pain of sin (their own or others).

But more than that I want us to see that there is more of the gospel in these two verses than 90% of the rest of the Bible.  They present the gospel more clearly than you realise.

Read Matt 5:31-32; 19:3-12.  As we tackle these two passages we’ll see: (1) Marriage: made more central; (2) Divorce: made too easy; (3) The gospel: made more beautiful.

Marriage: made more central

The Pharisees want Jesus to take sides in this “grounds for divorce” question (19:3).  Jesus wants us to put marriage at the centre.  The Pharisees (mis)quote Moses to Jesus from Deuteronomy (19:3) [which we will come to in a minute], so in 19:4-6 Jesus answers with God’s perfect plan from creation (READ).  There are three things we see there:

  1. The union is from two people to “one flesh”. The one flesh idea is probably closer to the idea of “one person”.
  2. God makes the union. Many years ago, it was two sets of parents that arranged marriages, today is it two people who decide on each other.  There is a minister who conducts the service and guests who attend – that’s a lot of people.  But it is God who unites, God joins together, God is the prime actor in the marriage service
  3. Man cannot separate the union. You say, “Well that’s not true; people get divorced – the union is broken”.  But that is exactly Jesus’ point: we do not have the right or capacity to break the union.  As most of you would have said in your marriage vows: “til death do us part”.  Death is the only thing that breaks the union.  It is not within our rights as humans.

In saying this Jesus dismisses their false understanding of Deuteronomy and takes them back to God’s purpose for marriage.

Ultimately marriage is meant to display the covenant-keeping love of Christ to his bride, the church.  Just as God loves and acceptances me into an unbreakable union, because of the sacrificial death of his Son, so marriage is an unbreakable union.  Marriage is meant to show the truth about God’s covenant keeping love to man through Christ.  Marriage is a window into God’s heart.  He could have organised that storks just come and drop off babies at an individual’s home.  But he set up creation such that a male and female would enter into an unbreakable union for their whole lives on earth so that we could understand what it would mean to have a relationship with Him.

In Ephesians 5 Paul carefully explains how marriage should function between husband and wife.  He quotes Genesis 2:24 and then says that verse is a “profound mystery” but he is “talking about Christ and the church”.  If Christ were ever to reject the church; if we were ever to stop being the children of God it would be completely legitimate for you to divorce.

Divorce: made too easy

Jesus has not finished with the 7th Commandment – the matter of adultery.  Jesus says: you claim not to be breaking the 7th commandment but (a) your eyes are an opportunity for lust and you are gorging your heart on fantasy: which is adultery (last week); (b) you make divorce way too easy which also causes adultery.  What does he mean?

Both the Matthew 5 and 19 passages refer to the OT teaching on divorce in Deuteronomy 24 (which I would like you to go read to confirm what I am about to say).  They had distilled the Deuteronomy teaching to: just give her the right paper work and all is fine and dandy!”   There were two schools of thought at that time – one more conservative and one more liberal – and Jesus was being asked to take sides.  What was happening is that Jewish men were being taught that if they found something “displeasing” or “indecent” about his wife he should divorce her – but just make sure she has the correct paper work.  “Displeasing” or “indecent” could include anything from finding another woman more attractive to putting too much salt in the food.  They had turned this regulation of sin into permission (19:7).  Deuteronomy 24 is not God’s ideal – it was an allowance for certain people at a certain time to manage people’s sin.  Jesus says (19:8) because of hardness of heart!

The real purpose of the Deuteronomy 24 was to stop men who had divorced their first wife from divorcing their second wife and going back to the first.  They had perverted this regulation of divorce into wholesale permission for divorce on almost any grounds (#menaretrash???).

Jesus is speaking into a context where men were abusing marriage and divorce; women could not work and had no security and needed to be married to a man.  Jesus says: what you are doing whimsically is a breaking of the 7th commandment; you become an adulterer with your new wife; your ex-wife becomes an adulterer with her new husband.  Jesus rips of their self-righteous masks to reveal the revolting horridness of thei      r sinful hearts.

The gospel: made more beautiful

So here is the big question: what is Jesus going to do in 19:9?  Is he going look at mankind, still as sinful and continue the permission of Deuteronomy 24?  Will he still make allowance?

The answer is already implicit in the way Jesus started the Sermon on the Mount: I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfil it.  So far Jesus has said, “Murder is not just about killing someone, it is actually about anger in your heart; adultery is not about sexual intercourse, it is actually about lust in your heart.”  Christ came to reveal the heart of the law AND he wants his people to show that reality in the way they live.  He is going to empower us to live in this fullness.

Receiving covenant-love

God has been in the longest lived, worst marriage of all time.  He got us as his bride – spiritual adulterers and sinful idolaters.  We have received the continuing forgiving and reconciling love of God – even when we fail again and again and again and again.  God says, “I have not rejected ECCC though they sin day after day after day after day after day.

Jesus will never divorce us as his bride.  He never forsakes, never abandons, never abuses, never turns away, never denies.  He is always patient, always persevering, always hopeful, always forgiving, and always gracious.  Ultimately adultery is a betrayal of the truth about Christ and his marriage to us.

Living out covenant-love

Don’t tell another story with your marriage.  Tells the story of God’s faithful covenant love.  Marriage needs to be elevated out of the disrepute, normality, shame and mockery it is subject to.  We need to tell a better story, the gospel story through our marriages.

The drama of sin and hurt, love and forgiveness that plays itself out in marriage is the gospel at work – it displays the gospel.

  • Do you have a sinful spouse?
  • Do you have to love and forgive and reconcile?
  • Over what have you said to yourself: “It’s over, I’m done, I’m out, I can’t live with this”
  • What was it?
  • How much did it hurt?
  • How long did it last?

Through marriage you understand the power of the gospel and the pain of sin.  You understand what God has gone through and what it takes to reconcile.  The depth of the pain that I cause my wife helps me to understand God’s pain over my sin.  The emotional and spiritual energy and commitment it takes me to forgive and reconcile helps me understand God’s love.  Marriage helps you understand the depths of sin, betrayal and failure; and at the same time the heights of God’s love, forgiveness and grace.

The gospel is the power to keep you married (or to stay single if that is your calling).  And listen: when you forgive and stay married and overcome you differences and sins it is a redemptive testimony to the world.  It is NOT easy, but since when did sinful human beings and the need for love make marriage easy!  In the end it is that vertical experience of the grace of God in the gospel that we bend out horizontally from husband to wife and wife to husband.


Hear me when I say that there is deep wisdom needed when dealing with divorce:  there is now way that I can apply this sermon to people’s different needs and situations as you come in here today.  But let me say in closing:

  • I have put together a little document that sketches the boundaries of divorce and remarriage.
  • There is such a thing as redemptive separation: over the issue of assault, adultery, child abuse, drunken rage, addictive gambling, theft or lying that bring a family to ruin.
  • For the person who has been divorced this may be hard to hear, but the radical call of Christ to NOT divorce and remarry is the ultimate confidence that he will never divorce you even if you have been divorced.
  • For the person who is married to someone who is not a Christian – pray for God to overcome their hardness of heart just like he did for you – and that your marriage may be empowered by grace from both sides.



Sermon Questions

Please use / augment / discard these questions so that your group has a fruitful discussion

Please note that this is a sensitive issue to discuss in a CG.  You may have people who have been divorced (and remarried) in your group.  All should be gentle in what they say and how they say it.  It is true that God hates divorce (Mal 2:16) but it is NOT true that he hates the divorced person.  For those who have been divorced (rightly or wrongly) there is forgiveness and restoration.  You cannot change the past, but God can heal you from your past hurts and failures.

  1. Why is it important that Jesus answers the Pharisees test question with marriage?
  2. What does Jesus teach about marriage (19:5-6)?
  3. Read Eph 5:21-33.  What does Jesus mean in verses 31-32?  How is marriage mean to display the covenant-keeping love of Christ?
  4. How had the Pharisees made divorce too easy?  Read Deuteronomy 24:1-4.
  5. How does the covenant-love of God receive through salvation and relationship with God empower us for marriage (or singleness)?


“Legitimate reasons for divorce” may come up as a question in your group.  Here is a helpful outline[1] to guide your discussion

  1. It seems that Biblically there are 3 legitimate reasons for divorce:
    1. ADULTERY – Where there has been sexual immorality (Matthew 19:9).
    2. ABANDONMENT – Where a believing spouse has been deserted by an unbelieving spouse. Note that this must be the choice of the unbeliever and not by the initiative of the believer (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).
    3. ABUSE – Where there is danger to the spouse or children due to physical or sexual abuse, separation may be advisable. Should the offending party remain unrepentant in this sin, divorce may be the end result of this separation.  In the case of an unrepentant spouse, Matthew 18:17 or 1Cor 5:11-13 (where “sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler” describes abuse in the home) instructs us to treat them as an unbeliever, in which case the instructions 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 would apply.

Therefore, divorce is always the result of sin, but is not always itself a sin (Matthew 19:7-8).