SWM042 – God will never leave you
This is a sermon I wrote and preached in my home church in March 2019. Since it deals with the topic of marriage and relationships I thought I’d shared it on the blog, podcast, YouTube and wherever else. Plus, those in our supporters group who read the first draft really liked it, so that was encouraging.
The direction from my pastor was to preach from the life of Christ, something that tells us about God’s love. It was to fit into a sermon series he was part-way through.
So, in order to teach you about God’s love, I’m going to talk about divorce. Why? Apparently because few others want to, and apparently that’s my role – to talk about things everyone would rather leave well enough alone.
How can divorce show us God’s love? Those two things don’t really go together, do they? Well, I’ll tell you.
Let’s start by reading the account in the Bible. We can find this in two places in the gospels: Mark 10:1-12 and Matthew 19:1-11. I’m going to deal with the Matthew account as it gives a bit more detail.
Now when Jesus had finished these sayings [he was just answering the question about how often you should forgive someone], he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”
He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”Matthew 19:1-12
Introduction & Context
Jesus was making his way back to Jerusalem, surrounded by people who he was healing, and along comes the Pharisees. As was often their plan, they came to trap him with a question. After the healing at the pool of Bethesda, which we heard about a couple of weeks ago, the rabbis, including the Pharisees, had been plotting Jesus’ death. Of course, they weren’t at the point that they were willing to kill him directly yet, so they looked for ways to set large groups of people against him, or possibly get him in trouble with the Romans.
Potential Plan #1 – The Romans
As I was researching this, I found what is probably the most confusing wikipedia page in existence. Here’s what wikipedia has on Herodias, the wife of Herod:
So, Herodias, not to be confused with Herodas, was a princess of the Herodian dynasty. She was the daughter of Aristobulus IV and his wife Berenice. She was the sister of Herod V, Herod Agrippa, Aristobulus Minor and Mariamne III (wife of Crown Prince Antipater and, after his execution by Herod the Great, she was possibly the first wife of Herod Archelaus, principle heir of Herod the Great).Wikipedia
Now, Herod the Great executed two of his sons (Alexander and Aristobulus IV), and engaged Herodias to Herod II, her half-uncle, who we think Luke had called Herod Philip, not to be confused with Philip the tetrarch, who has nothing to do with this story. Others have described him as Herod Boethus.
Herodias divorced Herod II and married Herod Antipas, who was the half-brother of Herod II, who had divorced his first wife Phasaelis purely so he could marry Herodias. It was this marriage that John the Baptist openly criticized and got his head cut off for.
All that to say that it’s possible that the Pharisees were trying to get Jesus killed in the same manner. They were hoping He’d say something that would set Herod or Herodias against Him.
Potential Plan #2 – The Jews
On the Jewish side, there was an argument over translation. Moses used a word in Hebrew that is a bit vague. It can mean nakedness or indecency, but it can also mean simply improper behaviour or something undesirable.
There were two schools of thought at the time: the liberals, who followed the teachings of Hillel who generally preferred to follow the spirit of the law over the letter of the law and the conservatives who followed the teachings of Shammai who taught that following the letter of the law was how you showed respect and worship to God. Hillel and Shammai lived a generation before Jesus, so Jesus likely would have grown up knowing about these two schools.
Divorce was taken pretty lightly in Jesus’ time. In fact, divorce was seen as a privilege from God to the people of Israel. Anyone could marry, but only the Jewish people could divorce. How backwards is that? Rather than God being the God of marriage, He was the God of divorce.
On this topic of divorce, the two schools were split though. The liberals thought that a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever. If she burnt a meal, that’s enough to write her a certificate of divorce and send her on her way. The conservatives felt that divorce was only valid in the case of sexual unfaithfulness – though I should point out that leaving the house with your hair or arms uncovered was considered being unfaithful and thus cause for divorce as you’re showing your beauty off to people who aren’t your spouse.
So, they come to Jesus basically asking “which school of thought do you follow”? How do you interpret Moses’ commands? Do you follow the letter of the law, or do you believe we have to follow the spirit of the law?
And rather than pick a side, Jesus responds with a rebuke:
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh.
What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”Matthew 19:4-6
In this, Jesus does two things:
First, it’s generally agreed that Moses wrote the majority of the first 5 books of the Bible. However, this led to a belief in Jesus’ time regarding this passage:
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.
So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.Genesis 2:24-25
It was believed that this was a commentary by Moses. That’s important because Deuteronomy 24 is where Moses recounts setting out the protocol for divorce, which is what the Pharisees were asking about here.
Jesus tells the Pharisees, and us, that God Himself said these words in the Garden of Eden.
This means that Jesus believed that Moses was divinely inspired in his writings. There was a lot of talk a few years back about how we can’t take anything in Genesis literally because we have no first-hand account. There were some denominations stating that Genesis was either an allegory, a myth, or just a story intended to show God is the creator, but not actually teaching us the actual events. But here, Jesus flat out tells us that Moses wrote God’s words down correctly. Jesus validates the story of Adam and Eve letting us know it actually happened as written.
Therefore Moses has no right to supercede or otherwise change God’s plan for marriage.
Second, by quoting this passage and attributing it to God while we were still in the Garden, Jesus tells us that God’s original intent was simple: Marriage is for life. Period. It is the joining of two people by God, so mankind has no authority to separate them. That’s how it was in the garden, and in light of the kingdom of heaven being at hand, this is the mindset we should have now.
Of course, the Pharisees ask the next logical question:
Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?Matthew 19:7
In other words, if God never intended divorce, then why did Moses order us to give certificates?
Jesus tells them
Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.Matthew 19:8
Notice Jesus flips the words around. The Pharisees said Moses commanded them to divorce if they found something undesirable in their wife. Jesus corrects them by saying he “allowed” or “permitted” because of their hardness of heart. Some translations say “suffered” like he was forced into it and conceded because he had no other option.
Not every statute God gave through Moses was good.
Who doesn’t like that statement? Yeah, I didn’t either, but I found this passage in Ezekiel:
Also with uplifted hand I swore to them in the wilderness that I would disperse them among the nations and scatter them through the countries, because they had not obeyed my laws but had rejected my decrees and desecrated my Sabbaths, and their eyes lusted after their parents’ idols.
So I gave them other statutes that were not good and laws through which they could not live;Ezekiel 20:23-25
Sometimes the choice is between really bad and “not good”. I think this divorce command was the “not good” option.
In other words, divorce was never intended, but like many laws in the Old Testament, they had to be put into place to stop the abuse that was happening. Because of how sinful we humans are, God had to step in.
There was a lot of injustice going on. Men would marry, and then when they found another woman they lusted over, they would find some excuse to divorce their wife and send her away so they could marry again. Or a wife would think “I wonder what it would be like to be married to that guy, I think I’ll divorce this one, marry him and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just go back.”
People were getting married on a whim thinking “Well, let’s see if this works out. If it doesn’t, we can just get divorced.” Sound familiar? Is that not what is happening today?
So laws were put in place to stop the ridiculousness that was occurring.
Of course, humans, sinful as we are, started marrying multiple people, so then Moses had to put rules around that as well, which some have interpreted to mean Moses was in favour of polygamy. No matter what laws he gave the people, Moses just couldn’t win.
So, it wasn’t that Moses or God was allowing divorce, the people were already divorcing. Rather Moses was doing his best to protect the people, but again, Jesus reiterates that divorce was never intended.
At the same time, he tackles two major issues with the Pharisee’s questions in his responses. Everything up until this point has really been just context and introduction, to get you up to speed with the situation. Now we dig into what He said.
Issue 1: Hardness of Heart
The first issue is this “hardness of heart” that Jesus mentions. As I said before, He had just finished answering the question “How often should I forgive someone”. If you don’t know that story, a man asks Jesus how often he should forgive his brother or sister. Should he forgive them 7 times? Jesus answers, depending on the translation, either 77 times, or 7 * 70 times, or 490 times.
Either way, it doesn’t matter, the point is, as the children’s song says “70 * 7, just keep on forgiving. When you reach the end, take a breath and start again.” The basic message is, you forgive. Period.
The next thing you know, the Pharisees are asking “When am I allowed to divorce my wife? Can I divorce her for any reason at all, or does it have to be something really bad?” This question shows an attitude which is about as far away from a forgiving spirit as you can get. In fact, Jesus spends the next while talking about this hardness of heart, because no one was getting the point.
Just after this exchange, the disciples are scolded for stopping the children from coming to Jesus – another issue of a hard heart.
Next Jesus talks to a rich man about how to get into heaven. This rich man had been following all the rules, but he loved his wealth more than God. That he wasn’t willing to give up. He had a limit to how much he was willing to commit to get into heaven.
Next, Jesus delivers the parable of the workers in the vineyard. If you don’t know the parable, Jesus tells a story of a man who owns a vineyard and goes out into the streets throughout the day to hire workers. He hires some at the beginning of the day, some in the middle and some in the evening and pays them all the same typical daily wage. Those who worked all day got upset because he was generous with those that came later in the day. They had hard hearts.
At the end of all of these conversations and parables, two blind men come and can’t get near to Jesus because of the crowd, so they start shouting, asking to be healed. The crowd apparently having paid no attention, yells at them to be quiet. After all, they’re trying to listen and learn how to be more forgiving and not have hard hearts…
Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand, because their response to Jesus’ declaration that marriage was intended to be for life was:
If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.Matthew 19:10
In other words, if divorce isn’t allowed … I’m not sure I want in.
I found this great passage in a paper from the Adventist Biblical Research Institute:
Our marriages live off forgiveness. We live off forgiveness. Therefore, we extend our forgiveness to our spouses. The issue is not divorce. The issue is to forgive each other and let go of the hard heart.Adventist Biblical Research Institute
I think this is the root of this first issue. The disciples highlight the mindset of the Pharisees by expressing the same thoughts. They couldn’t even consider marriage without thinking about divorce. Rather than seeing it as a gift from God to be enjoyed, all they could think about was what the return policy was.
That’s the first underlying issue Jesus addresses with the Pharisee’s question, that the question betrayed the hardness of the Pharisees’ and disciples’ hearts.
Issue 2: What Marriage Signifies
The second is their lack of understanding of just how deep the commitment of marriage is and what it signifies.
In Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, he also points out that God made marriage in the garden of Eden. In fact I’d argue, it’s one of two institutions God created, even before the fall, to point back to Him:
- Sabbath – as a weekly reminder of who God is as creator and what He did, resting on the day He rested.
- Marriage – as a living metaphor of God’s relationship with us.
I realized this, thinking “why has no one ever pointed this out to me”. Then I found out it wasn’t an original thought.
Apparently an author by the name of Ellen White in the 1800s wrote about this.
When the Pharisees afterward questioned Him concerning the lawfulness of divorce, Jesus pointed His hearers back to the marriage institution as ordained at creation.
“Because of the hardness of your hearts,” He said, Moses “suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). He referred them to the blessed days of Eden, when God pronounced all things “very good.”
Then marriage and the Sabbath had their origin, twin institutions for the glory of God in the benefit of humanity. Then, as the Creator joined the hands of the holy pair in wedlock, saying, A man shall “leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one” (Genesis 2:24), He enunciated the law of marriage for all the children of Adam to the close of time.
That which the Eternal Father Himself had pronounced good was the law of highest blessing and development for man.Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing – Ellen White – Page 63
Our society tells us that marriage is simply a construct created by humans to facilitate the raising of children, to improve the chances of survival by forcing a family unit that will pool resources, and that it decreases the chances of inbreeding, and thus is simply a tool of evolution.
But we as Christians know better. We know marriage, whether it is our own, our parents, or the marriages around us, are living metaphors of God’s love for us. They’re also a training grounds for building Christ-like characters.
Let me show you something. The last thing Jesus says in this particular exchange in Matthew is:
Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”Matthew 19:11b-12 ESV
If you don’t know, eunuchs were men who were castrated, but I don’t think Jesus was talking about being physically unable to mate. The Message Bible translates it like this:
Not everyone is mature enough to live a married life. It requires a certain aptitude and grace. Marriage isn’t for everyone. Some, from birth seemingly, never give marriage a thought. Others never get asked—or accepted. And some decide not to get married for kingdom reasons. But if you’re capable of growing into the largeness of marriage, do it.Matthew 19:11b-12 MSG
Does this translation upset anyone else? Here’s an example where I feel readability needs to be balanced with correct interpretation. Now, while I agree with their interpretation that Jesus was talking about anyone who will not marry, not actual eunuchs, I disagree with the rest of the translation. It sends the message that if you don’t marry, it’s because you aren’t mature enough. That you lack aptitude and grace. I don’t see that in Jesus’ words in any other translation.
Plus, Paul writes:
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.1 Corinthians 7:8-9
In other words, those of us who are married are the ones who lack the aptitude and grace needed.
We who are married lack self-control, which is one of the fruits of the spirit. Our marriages are training-wheels. Marriage is remedial classes – an intensive course to teach us to be more Christ-like, because we didn’t have the aptitude, grace or the self-control needed to learn on our own. We needed to be forced to grow by having a daily reminder of just how flawed we are and how much we need to be more Christ-like.
Now for those in this living remedial class, if marriage is a metaphor for our relationship with God, then what does that say if we cannot continue to love our spouse? If love is a choice, as the Bible teaches it is, if we “fall out of love” with someone who is there every day, who we can physically see, touch, hold and share with, what chance do we have of staying connected to God, who, let’s face it, is a bit harder to maintain a connection with simply because He’s so alien to us in every way. I mean, He’s here, but you can’t exactly ask Him for a hug.
Now, I’m talking a lot about marriage, but truth be told, all relationships teach you these things, so you don’t need to be married to learn them. It’s just that marriage is … well, intense. As far as relationships go, it’s uniquely designed without an escape. Once you commit, that’s it.
This is why there’s so much emphasis on choosing a spouse who is a believer, because once you are married, there’s no turning back now. Even if you marry someone who has the same world-view as you, who’s intention it is to seek God all the days of their lives, it’s still enforced close confinement of two individuals in almost constant conflict.
Sort of the life-long version of “if two people are fighting, lock them in a room until they reach common ground … or kill each other”. It’s not intended to be something you can get out of. You don’t get to say “God, I think I chose wrong, can I have a do-over? Can I choose another partner to teach me to be more Christ-like?” You can’t, because of this metaphor.
If we go into marriage seeing divorce as a parachute if things go bad, do we go into a relationship with God with the same mentality? I think this has been a failing of many believers. In preaching hellfire, they focus on the divorce rather than the marriage. How many Christians are so focused on hell, they don’t realize the amazing gift in front of them? My denomination doesn’t preach eternal hellfire because we don’t believe it’s a biblical concept, but many still focus more on running away from sin rather than running towards God. How many of us are working so hard to avoid divorce that we forget to love?
The Bible constantly tells us that marriage is a metaphor for our relationship with God. The entire book of Hosea is a living example of God’s relationship with adulterous/idolatrous Israel. Jesus’ parables often used bride and groom imagery to teach about our relationship with God and Paul, author of a large portion of the New Testament, regularly referenced Christ and the church when talking about marriage even going so far as to equate sex with our intimate times with God.
So, marriages are living metaphors for God’s love for us. When I’m wronged or hurt by my wife, it teaches me about how God feels when I wrong or hurt Him. When I hurt her, I feel remorse, not because I’ve done something wrong that violated a contract, but because the person I love was hurt by it. When I’m forgiven and shown unconditional, unexpected, spontaneous love by my wife, it teaches me about God’s love for me.
But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Romans 5:8
And it doesn’t need to be our marriages. It can be the marriages of our parents, our friends, even our children if we get to that stage of life. We all learn lessons from the marriages around us. Hopefully, we’re seeing examples of unconditional and sacrificial love, humility, submission and respect.
When we see these things, as a metaphor for God’s love for us and relationship with us, we learn about the unconditional, sacrificial love of God and when we act out these things, we reflect these teachings to everyone within our sphere of influence.
Unfortunately, we also sometimes show the opposite. When we see spouses being cruel to each other, making jokes at each other’s expenses. When we see, or have, selfish attitudes, counting and recollecting of wrongs, when we say things that express the idea that love is contingent of good behaviour, or selfish needs being met, when jokes are made or attitudes conveyed that their body is being kept from their spouse, or that our marriages are built on an expectation of delivered rights, when we experience, or see divorces in the Christian community, it sends a different message.
It teaches people that God is selfish. God is controlling. God only loves you so long as you perform. God may leave if you don’t keep up your end of the contract. If you aren’t a good enough person, or do enough good things, you may be surprised by where you end up. That even if you want to stay with God, He may decide to leave you.
Instead, Jesus despite not being married, sends a clear message about God’s love for us through the metaphor of marriage:
God’s original plan was to never leave us, but to stay with us forever. It’s only due to the hardness of our hearts that we initiate divorce with Him. And the only reason God let’s us go is spiritual infidelity. That is, our continued desire to place other things above Him. But God, being love, cannot have a hardened heart. He only has infinite, unconditional love for us. A love that is so strong, He will let us go if we’re really persistent about it, but one that is seeking reconciliation so long as it is possible.
That is why this sermon isn’t really about marriage or divorce. If you are married, then live your marriage as it should be: a reflection of God’s commitment to us. An example for ourselves, for our family and friends, and the rest of the world.
If you’ve been married and are separated, divorced or widowed, don’t let a sense of insecurity from that bleed into your relationship with God. Trust that He will be there for you, that His desire is a relationship with you, and He will never leave, cheat or die on you. If you decide to leave Him, He ultimately won’t stop you, but He will never be the one to instigate a separation.
And if you’ve been through a divorce, please don’t tell people the divorce was the best thing that ever happened to you, or that leaving was the best choice you ever made. Especially if you got remarried! I mean, what message does that send about your new marriage? Your divorce was a better decision than marrying the person you are with? I mean, I get it, I’ve heard some terrible accountings of what happens in some marriages, but let’s treat the entire thing as a regrettable event, and not glorify the separation. And I know, a lot of the times they are jokes, but even jokes have a way of informing the mind and setting expectations.
If you’re single – who knows what the future will bring. Perhaps you will experience a marriage where you get to practice this metaphor for yourself. Perhaps you won’t. Perhaps you don’t need it, and you can focus on God without the distraction, just as God is completely focused on each of us.
And so, I think Jesus’ response to the Pharisees went right over their heads and the heads of the disciples. I think it goes over ours as well most of the time. Growing up in the church, I’ve read and heard this passage dozens of times, and I didn’t see this until a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to preach and the idea suddenly popped into my head. I think Jesus wasn’t only correcting their attitude about divorce, but about God. The Pharisees were going around teaching people “If you don’t stack up, God won’t want you, and He will abandon you.” Maybe not explicitly with their words, but their focus on the Law, especially the “how much can I get away with” mentality belied their view of God.
Jesus teaches a different view, one that started in the Garden:
God created all this, and He desires to be with us forever. He will never initiate a divorce with us. God will never leave you.