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The Sermon On The Mount


Chapter Thirteen

The Law and Adultery-Concluded


Most writers regard Matthew 5:32, 33, as forming a separate subdivision of our Lord's sermon, but really it belongs to the same section as verses 27-31, treating of the same subject and reprehending the same sin, though a different aspect thereof. Under the general head of adultery occurred another evil, namely the use and misuse of divorce, concerning which the Law of Moses had been grossly corrupted. Having shown the strictness and spirituality of the seventh commandment, Christ here took occasion to condemn the lax views and practices which then obtained in connection with the annulment of marriages. The Jews had fearfully perverted one of the political statutes of the Law, so that divorces were granted on the most frivolous pretences, and it was this our Lord here condemned. Thus, in reality, He was continuing to restore the seventh commandment to its proper place and perfections.

In the passage which is to be before us, we are supplied with a further illustration of the vast superiority of the righteousness of Christ's kingdom over the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. There is an invariable outworking of the principle that where spirituality wanes morality also deteriorates. All history bears witness to the fact that when vital godliness is at a low ebb, the sacred institution of marriage is held in light esteem. It is both solemn and sad to behold an exemplification of the same in our own times; as the claims of God are less and less regarded by those of high and low estate alike, the holy obligations of wedlock are gradually whittled down and then increasingly disregarded. When a country, avowedly Christian, begins to tamper with the institution of marriage and make more elastic its divorce laws, it is a certain proof of its ethical decadence.

Even those with only a smattering of ancient history are aware of the fact that in the last few decades before the fall of both the Grecian and Roman empires, marriage was held in such low esteem that it was a common thing for the women to keep tab on their divorces by the number of rings worn on their fingers. It may be replied, They were heathen peoples. True, but what our moderns would term "highly civilized." Moreover, human nature is the same the world over, and when the fear of God is lost moral corruptions quickly abound. It was not otherwise with the favored nation of Israel, as a glance at the prophets will show. The case of the woman in John 4, to whom our Lord said, "Thou hast had five husbands: and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband" (v. 18), is not to be regarded as an exception. but rather as symptomatic of a disease which had spread widely through the nation.

"It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement" (Matthew 5:31). The original statute on this matter is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. But so perversely had that injunction been interpreted, that one of the leading schools of theology (that of Hillel) taught that a man might put away his wife for any cause. In the Apocryphal writings we read: "The son of Sirach saith, If she go not as thou wouldest have her, cut her off from thy flesh, give her a bill of divorce, and let her go" (Ecclus. 25:26), which is one of many definite indications that the Apocrypha was not inspired by the Holy Spirit. Josephus also wrote: "The law runs thus: He that would be divorced from his wife, for any cause whatever, as many such causes there are, let him give her a bill of divorce." He also confessed that he himself put away his wife after she had borne him three children, because he was not pleased with her behavior.

Moses had indeed been Divinely directed to allow divorce in case of uncleanness, for the prevention of yet worse crimes. But that which had been no more than a temporary concession was changed by the Pharisees into precept, and a so interpreted as to give license to the indulging of their evil and selfish desires. And yet, hypocrites as they were, they made a great parade of obeying Moses with regard to the "bill of divorcement." The Talmudical writings, though they took little trouble to describe the justice of divorce, were rigidly definite with regard to the form of the bill, insisting that it must be written in twelve lines, neither more nor less. Such is ever the folly of those who strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.

Let us now consider a few details in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The first thing we notice is the kind of statute there given. It was not a moral but a political or civil one, for the good ordering of the state. Among such laws were those of tolerance or permission, which did not approve of the evil things concerned, but only suffered them for the prevention of greater evil-as when the sea makes a breach into the land, if it cannot possibly be stopped, the best course is to make it as narrow as possible. Such was the law concerning usury (Deut. 23:20), permitting the Jews to exact it of a stranger, but not to exercise it towards a brother; similar too was the law regulating polygamy (Deut. 21:15). These laws tolerated what God condemned, and that for the purpose of preventing greater evils.

Such was the Mosaic law for divorce: not approving of the giving of a bill of divorce for every trifling cause, but permitting it for the sake of preventing greater misery and crime. For instance, if a man took a strong and rooted dislike to his wife and wished to be rid of her, he would be likely to ill-treat her, until she was in danger of her very life. This law of divorce, then, was granted so as to remove the temptation for a hard-hearted husband to commit murder Divorce is always a deviation from the original marriage institution, consequent upon human depravity. In this instance if a man found that in his wife-something short of adultery, for that was to be punished by death-which made her repulsive to him, he was permitted to divorce her. But this was not to be done verbally and hurriedly, in a fit of temper, but after due deliberation. A "bill of divorcement" had to be legally drawn up and witnessed, making the transaction a solemn and final one.

Second, we may note the strictness of this law. The man only was permitted to give this bill of divorcement; neither here nor anywhere else in the Old Testament was this liberty granted unto the wife. If this strikes us as being unjust or unduly severe, two things are to be taken into consideration. First, in the case of a husband being guilty of immorality, the wife could bring it to the notice of the magistrate, and relief was then afforded her by her guilty partner suffering the death penalty. Second, this statute was expressly designed for the prevention of violence and bloodshed, to protect the weaker vessel; it being taken for granted that the man could protect himself if his wife should attack him.

Third, a brief word now upon the force and effect of this law. It made the bill of divorcement, given for the stipulated cause, to be regular before men, and marriage thereafter lawful in human courts (Deut. 24:4); and whichever guilty party under such a divorcement married again, committed adultery (Matthew 19:9). Now this law the Pharisees had grossly perverted. They taught that it was a "commandment" (Matthew 19:7), whereas Moses only gave a permission-as the language of Deuteronomy 24:1, plainly denotes. So too they taught that for any cause (Matthew 19:3) a man could divorce his wife and thereby be free from her before God, and therefore at liberty to marry another.

"But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery" (v. 32). Here Christ refutes the corrupt interpretation of the scribes and Pharisees, and positively affirms that divorce is permissible only in the case of that sin which in God's sight disannuls the marriage covenant, and even then it is only allowed, and not commanded. Many have understood (being misled by the meaning of the English word) the "saving for the cause of fornication" to refer to this sin being committed before marriage and concealed by her till afterwards, arguing that only a married person can be guilty of "adultery." This leads us to raise the point, Do the Scriptures make any real and definite distinction between fornication and adultery? And we answer, No. True, in Matthew 15:19, and Galatians 5:19, they are mentioned separately, yet in Revelation 2:20, 22, they are clearly used interchangeably, while in Ezekiel 16:25-28, the wife of Jehovah is said to commit both sins.

"But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery." These words of our Lord are too plain to he misunderstood. "According to this law, adultery is the only sufficient reason of divorce. He who for any other cause puts away his wife, is to be held an adulterer if he marry another woman; and she, by marrying him, commits adultery; while, at the same time, he becomes the guilty occasion of adultery, if the woman, who is still his wife, marry another man; for in this case she commits adultery as he also who marries her" (J. Brown). No matter how unscriptural be the laws of the land in which we live, or lax the sentiments and practices of the public today, nothing can possibly excuse anyone flying in the face of this express declaration of the Son of God-repeated by Him in Matthew 19:9.

Something higher than the laws of man must govern and regulate those who fear God. The laws of all "civilized" countries sanction the practice of usury, but the Word of God condemns the same. The laws of our land are open for men to go to court at the first, upon every light occasion, without seeking for some means of agreement. But those who do so are guilty before God, notwithstanding the liberty given them by our political statutes. In like manner, human laws permit divorce for "incompatibility" of disposition, "mental cruelty" and various other things; but the Law of God condemns such licentiousness. Papists allow divorce for religious reasons, appealing to "every one that hath forsaken . . .father or mother, or wife. . . for My name's sake" (Matthew 19:29), but in that place Christ refers not to divorce at all, but to a separation caused by imprisonment, banishment, or death.

Marriage is not a mere civil thing, but is partly spiritual and Divine, and therefore God alone has the power to appoint the beginning, the continuance, and the end thereof. Here the question is likely to be asked, What of the innocent party where a divorce has taken place: may such a one marry again with Divine sanction? To the writer it seems strange that, though there is a decided consensus of agreement, yet all Christians are not one on this matter. In seeking the scriptural answer to the question, let it first be borne in mind that infidelity on the part of either husband or wife annuls the marriage covenant, the man and woman being no longer "one flesh," one of them having been adulterously united to some other. Divorce goes yet farther, for it legally dissolves and removes the marriage relation. We are therefore in hearty accord with the Westminster Catechism of Faith which declares: "In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce, and after the divorce to marry another, as if the offending party were dead" (Chapter 24, section 5).

In his excellent piece, "Of Marriage after Divorce in Case of Adultery," John Owen pointed Out that to insist that divorce simply secures a legal separation but does not dissolve the marriage relation would bring in a state harmful to men. God has appointed marriage to he a remedy against incontinence (1 Cor. 7:2), but if innocent parties lawfully divorced may not marry again, then they are deprived of this remedy and debarred from this benefit. If the divorced person has not the gift of continency, it is the express will of God that he should marry for his relief; yet on the supposition of the objector he sins if he marries again, yea is guilty of the horrible crime of adultery. Is not this quite sufficient to expose the untenability of such an anomaly?

Again, can we suppose for a moment that it is the will of a righteous God for an innocent person to be penalized the remainder of his or her earthly life because of the infidelity of another? Surely the very idea is repugnant to all who are really acquainted with the Divine goodness and mercy. Why, if an innocent man upon a divorce is not then at liberty to marry again, he is deprived of his right by the sin of another, which is against the very law of nature; and on such a supposition it lies within the power of every wicked woman to deprive her husband of his natural right. The right of divorce in case of adultery, specified by Christ, for the innocent party to make use of, is evidently designed for his liberty and relief; but on the supposition that he may not again marry, it would provoke a snare and a yoke to him, for if thereon he has not the gift of continence, he is exposed to sin and judgment.

But apart from these convincing considerations, the Word of God is plain and decisive upon the matter. In Matthew 5:32, Christ lays down a general rule, and then puts in an exception thereto, the nature of which exception necessarily implies and affirms the contrary to the general rule. The general rule is: Whosoever putteth away his wife causeth her to commit adultery, and he who marrieth her becometh guilty of the same crime. The "exception" there must be a contrary, namely that the innocent party in the divorce may lawfully marry again, and the one marrying him or her is not guilty of adultery. But that is the only exception. 1 Corinthians 7:15, has been appealed to by some as warranting re-marriage in the case of total desertion: but that passage is quite irrelevant, teaching no such thing. The verse refers to an unbelieving husband deserting a believing wife: in such case (says the apostle) she is not "bound" to pursue her husband and demand support, nor to go to law on the matter; rather is she to follow a course of "peace." The verse says nothing whatever about her being free to marry again; nay, verse 39 of the same chapter says "The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth."

In Matthew 19:9, Christ declared, "Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery." Here again it is evident that the plain sense of these words is: He who putteth away his wife for fornication and then marrieth another is not guilty of adultery. In such a case the bond of marriage has already been broken, and the one so putting away his guilty wife is free to marry again. When our Lord condemned the putting away and marrying again for every cause, the exception He made of "fornication" clearly allows both divorce and re-marriage, for an exception always affirms the contrary unto what is denied in the rule, or denies what is affirmed in it. (Condensed from Owen, who closes his piece by saying, "This is the constant practice of all Protestant churches in the world.")

Prevention is better than cure. Even a temporary separation should be the last resource, and every possible effort made to avoid such a tragedy. Marriage itself is not to be entered into lightly and hurriedly, but once the knot is tied, each party should most earnestly consider the relationship which has been entered into and the serious importance of its duties. If love rules, all will be well: unselfishness and forbearance are to be mutually exercised. If the husband gives honour to his partner as unto "the weaker vessel (1 Pet. 3:7), and the wife see to it that she render unto her husband "due benevolence" (1 Cor. 7:3), much needless friction will be avoided. Let them bear with each other's infirmities, study each other's dispositions, and seek to correct each other's faults. Above all, let them often together draw near unto the Throne of Grace and seek God's blessing on their married life. The holier their lives, the happier they will be. Nothing is more honoring to God than a home which bears witness to the sufficiency of His grace and shadows forth the union which exists between Christ and His Church.

N.B. Our purpose in adverting (above) to the writings of John Owen was not because we felt our case needed the support of any human authority, hut in order that our readers might know what was taught and practiced by the godly Puritans.


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