As we've been exploring the Sermon on the Mount in the past few weeks, Jesus has invited the crowd to live the blessed life – to be ready for the kingdom of God to arrive. He's reminded them that the kingdom people are the real Israel – they make a difference in the world, like salt and light. And they haven't abandoned the Law of Moses. But he's come as the New Moses to take us deeper. He's signing us up for the new covenant, where God will take away our hard hearts and give us soft hearts inscribed already with the Law.
And he gives us the Spirit of God. The Spirit lets us race to the Law's goal faster than the Law gets there, because the Spirit gives us that power. So although we glance back to the Law to make sure we're going the right way, we don't live under it; we live ahead of it, in the Spirit. So where the Law told us not to murder, Jesus shows us that the Spirit will cure our anger, which is the root of murder – and if we follow the Spirit, we can't fall afoul of the Law.
So now Jesus turns to the next greatest crime after murder: “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'” (Matthew 5:27). And few people have any objection to that. Certainly the crowd that day didn't. They knew that was the Law, and they respected it. And they knew it was the main sexual sin any of them faced, since most people in Jesus' day were married in their teen years. And even today, most of those who commit adultery will usually agree that adultery is generally wrong, even if they think their case is something special. But Jesus drives us deeper than the words of the Law; he wants us to see what it reveals about God's heart and God's vision for healthy life in his kingdom.
But Jesus forces us to ask, “Why? Why not commit adultery? What's so special about marriage that adultery is a problem?” And so we have to know what marriage is, and what our impulses for love and intimacy are for.
Jesus isn't shy about telling us, either. Elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew, he gets into a debate with the Pharisees about this topic. They're interested in wrangling about the rules; he's interested in what God's plan was from the very beginning. “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).
Our culture is dreadfully confused about marriage – even more than the Pharisees ever were. We know that. But Jesus tells us what we need to know. He explains marriage by pointing back to the first one. Marriage is a special kind of union created by God. It isn't something we came up with. It isn't an invention like the car or the telephone or the electric guitar – something we can redesign at will, something we have authority over, to do with as we please. Marriage is a divine creation, not a human invention. So he sets the definition and the rules, not us. And because he created it, we're meant to think of it as a gift, not a burden. It's something he gave because he loves us. It's a gift from our Creator, and it reaches back through time to those first hazy memories of a world without sin.
Jesus tells us next that marriage is built on difference – the union of complementary people. Marriage is built on the fact that some of us were created male and others of us were created female. That's just what marriage is: a union that involves man and woman. Jesus said it. And God defined it. No matter what the courts or the laws say, a union without both man and woman can't be a marriage. That's not unfairness; that's just the way it's defined. Marriage is meant for something that only a man and a woman can do.
Jesus goes on to tell us that marriage is important – so important that God said it takes precedence over the next greatest bonds in society, those tying a person to his or her parents. A man departs from his parents in order to be bound to his wife. Marriage becomes the primary human commitment for those who enter into it, so it has to be something pretty serious.
And then Jesus makes clear: there are two people involved in this. Not one. And certainly not three or four or five. Polygamy was never God's design for marriage; it was tolerated for a while, but that 'while' is done and over with. Because marriage involves two, just two. Now, the word 'two' isn't in the original Hebrew. By the time Jesus is having this conversation, some Jews had been noticing that, when Noah brought animals onto the ark that were 'male and female,' the same words God used earlier in defining marriage, it was 'two by two' – and that meant that marriage should be two, too. Jesus agrees: marriage is for two, one man and one woman.
But these two don't stay merely two, the way a business partnership between two people does. Jesus explains, again quoting Genesis, that the two – the man and the woman united in marriage – become one flesh, a new creature that's meant to last as long as the people who make up its parts do. In marriage, we become one new thing, an organic unity. And in that one new thing, that one flesh, is the one and only setting where God's good gift of human sexuality was meant to be celebrated. Outside of that, it turns rotten and dangerous – fast.
If Jesus had needed to, he could have gone on. He could have pointed out how the next verse showed that one of the reasons for marriage was “to be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Marriage is the setting where that's meant to happen; no other will do. Marriage is what all those desires were meant for. It's where our physical parts work together like one body, one compound organism, for a common goal: the creation of new life. That's not all marriage is for, of course. Eve was created because it wasn't good for Adam to be alone; he needed companionship, he needed an equal who'd be 'bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh,' he needed a helper suitable for him.
Jesus also could have reminded us that marriage is a living parable. Paul talks about that, and so did the ancient prophets. They said that, when God gave the Law at Mount Sinai, he actually had a wedding with the nation of Israel (e.g., Ezekiel 16:8). He rescued the damsel in distress in Egypt, and at the mountain he married her. Paul takes that up and speaks of the relationship between Christ and his church as a marriage, or leading to a marriage, like we see in the Book of Revelation (Revelation 19:6-9). That's what every marriage is meant to point toward. Every marriage, Paul shows us, is created as a parable pointing to that reality of God and his people (Ephesians 5:31). And that's what makes marriage so holy, so sacred, so important.
And that's what makes adultery so dreadful. Adultery is unfaithfulness to your spouse, or accommodating some other person's unfaithfulness to his or her spouse. It isn't just a property crime. If marriage is a parable of God and his people, adultery is a parable of idolatry – which is exactly the way the prophets talk about it. Adultery is a betrayal of sacred promises, a crime not just against another person but against God. It's a horrible misuse of the gifts God has given us. And that's on top of all the harm it causes in real flesh-and-blood human lives – not just of the betrayed husband or wife, but friends and family torn asunder when the 'one flesh' gets stuck to other flesh in ways it never should.
And so now that we understand what marriage is, Jesus can ask us, “Where does adultery come from?” And the first answer has to be, “Desire for another.” It comes from the eyes, and ultimately the heart. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality” (Matthew 15:19). Before adultery is ever a body issue, it's a heart issue. And so Jesus tells us in this morning's passage, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).
Jesus is warning us that lust – which many people in that day and age, and in ours, too, thought was harmless – is what you'll see in adultery's baby pictures. Lust is where it begins. Lust isn't innocent, like many people back then believed. Lust is a hankering for what isn't yours to have, yours to dream about – Jesus uses the same word that you find in the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor's wife” (Exodus 20:17). And, it deserves to be mentioned, premarital sex was widely viewed as a sort of adultery in advance – so lust is a problem between two singles just as between people otherwise attached.
Note, by the way, who gets blamed for lust. Among Jews in that day, if a man lusted after a woman, the blame was placed mainly on the woman – maybe she didn't have her hair wrapped up in a headscarf, or maybe her arms were bare, or maybe she was talking to a man besides her husband. But Jesus says, no, the blame for lust falls mainly on the one doing the lusting.
And when Jesus talks about lust, he isn't talking merely about attraction. As one commentator says, “Jesus refers not to noticing a person's beauty, but to imbibing it, meditating on it, seeking to possess it.” The intent is what matters. Lust is about intentionally cultivating the temptation – looking with that intent, not just to appreciate beauty in an aesthetic sense, not just being attracted to in a way that can rightly lead to marriage, but intending to dwell on someone in ways inappropriate to act on, to fuel one's imagination.
Jesus isn't advocating being repressed; he's talking about keeping control of your desires, stopping them from latching onto forbidden things. He's teaching us to avoid reducing people to objects – physical objects for our sexual desires, or emotional objects to fulfill our wistful longings. He's teaching us to treat people as whole people, with an intimacy in thought and in action kept only in proportion to our commitment.
Jesus says that lust is serious – so serious it carries eternal consequences. So much so that you should be ready to go to any lengths to avoid it – better to live without eyes or hands than to surrender to lust and perish in hell (Matthew 5:29-30). Now, he isn't literally telling us to rip out our eyes or cut off our hands – because that isn't where lust comes from, anyway. It comes from the heart. And it's the heart that needs cured. Which, thank God, is exactly what he offers the Spirit for – to train us to avoid lust so that we won't even need the Law's rules on adultery. And the Spirit brings us together with other mature believers who can help keep us accountable.
And while Jesus is on the issue of marriage, he takes aim at another challenge: divorce. The Law had said, long before, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce” (Matthew 5:31; cf. Deuteronomy 24:1-4). And elsewhere in the Gospel, Jesus gets into a debate with the Pharisees about divorce.
See, in Jesus' time, there were two main groups of Pharisees, called the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel – Paul studied, before his conversion, under Hillel's grandson Gamaliel, maybe you remember. They agreed about plenty. They agreed, for instance, that marriage vows involved a commitment to provide food, clothing, shelter, and intimacy.
But one difference between them was how they read the passage in Deuteronomy that Jesus is quoting. It explains that one basis for divorce was 'a matter of indecency.' Shammai said that that's some kind of sexual sin, of the sort laid out in Leviticus. Hillel, on the other hand, interpreted the phrase as actually offering two different reasons: 'indecency,' on the one hand, and 'any matter,' on the other. So they offered 'any-matter' divorce – just any reason a man can think up.
And believe me, they came up with a lot of reasons. The early rabbis recorded in Jewish writings list plenty of reasons why men divorced their wives, or why wives asked courts to make their husbands divorce them. They said he could divorce her if he decided her head was the wrong shape, or her nose was too big or too little, or she had missing teeth, or she was too tan, or if her eyebrows were too bushy, or if she caught certain diseases, or if she didn't cook, or if she burned supper, or if she didn't leave the house clean, or if she yelled at him, or if she couldn't have children, or if she visited her parents, or if she spoke to another man, or if she did anything he'd told her not to do, or even if he just saw somebody prettier. The rabbis list all those reasons and plenty more as fair grounds for divorce. That's what they meant by 'any-matter' divorce – and our country practices much the same today.
That's why the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” – any matter (Matthew 19:3). He put a stop to all their legal wrangling, all this making of excuses to find ways out of marriage. He said no – only the biblical reasons like adultery, desertion, emotional neglect, or material neglect would be acceptable, anything that persistently broke marriage vows without repentance.
He went further, then – further than anybody else – and said that God would not look on an 'any-matter' divorce as valid. And all the Jews agreed that remarriage after an invalid divorce was a form of adultery, technically speaking (Matthew 5:32).
That's a hard thing to hear. Maybe some of us here this morning have been divorced, and maybe for reasons that Jesus says don't pass muster. Maybe some of us have remarried after that, and Jesus says that's technically adultery – the act of remarriage, not necessarily the rest of the marriage. That's not a comfortable thing to hear. But Jesus offers grace and forgiveness for all who repent, even adulterers and technical adulterers.
But still, the Pharisees had an objection to the way Jesus was talking about marriage. They thought that there were circumstances where God commanded them to divorce, in the Law, so marriage just can't be what Jesus says it is, they figured (Matthew 19:7).
Jesus reads it differently. He says that God allowed them to divorce, on these specific grounds (Matthew 19:8-9). A divorce wasn't the command; giving a certificate in the event of a divorce was the command – and that's because, in other ancient cultures, a first husband could reclaim a wife any time he pleased, even if she'd been remarried for years. That's why Moses wrote what he did. God regulated how to divorce, but that doesn't mean they or we should do it.
Jesus called for total forgiveness wherever possible, so long as the person repented. Divorce was the last resort in case of an absolutely hardened heart, but even then, it was never mandatory, so far as Jesus was concerned – and neither was marrying again. Divorce is against what God designed marriage for, and that's what's important to Jesus here – because God gave us marriage as a gift to bring life. Almost never is divorce something that God wants us to do – in cases of abuse, certainly, and some other unrepentant and persistent betrayals like continued adultery, but otherwise not – and so divorce isn't a decision to make without counsel from God's word, God's Spirit, and God's people.
That's what Jesus is telling us – we should not look at marriage and think about divorce as an option, because we should see marriage the way God sees it: as exclusive, lifelong loyalty with body and soul between a man made in God's image and a woman made in God's image, joined as one new flesh made in God's image to invite new life.
When his disciples were shocked at how extreme Jesus' teaching on divorce was, they complained that, if they couldn't even have the threat of divorce to keep spouses in line, it'd be better for a man not to marry (Matthew 19:10). And Jesus shocked them more by saying that, if they couldn't handle it, maybe they shouldn't marry after all.
Most Jews at the time believed marriage was mandatory, that it was one of God's commandments. There were people who couldn't marry, of course – those who were eunuchs from birth or by human action – but Jesus added a third choice, another option: staying unmarried “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” for those given the gift to receive that lifestyle (Matthew 19:11-12). Historically, the church treated that as some higher calling for monks and nuns, and said that married life was second-class; these days, the church often treats singles as second-class, in practice. But Jesus is saying that the paths are equal.
And thank God, he gives us the Spirit. The Spirit makes us run to the Law's goal faster than the Law can catch up. If the Spirit changes our hearts and makes us so committed to our marriage that we fulfill all the vows we make, if our first instinct is to forgive, if we cultivate a healthy relationship with our spouse... then you don't need to even know all the reasons the Law lets you divorce, you don't need to know all the loopholes. Those are for the people trying to get by as conveniently as they can. Those are for legalists.
The Law doesn't have to tell us when we can divorce, if we're too enraptured by God's vision for our marriage, or for holy singleness, to ever need or want to, even when hurt or betrayed. And the Spirit nurtures within us the true antidote to both lust and groundless divorce: contentment, whether with our gift of singleness or with the spouse God has provided for you, and above all with the adventure of living for God's kingdom.
Maybe you're wondering this morning what all this means to you. Some of us here are perhaps past the age where our passions are beyond our control, or you've disciplined yourselves to live out Jesus' calling to marital faithfulness. Some of us here are happily married; others are widowed.
But realize that on both of these fronts, what we believe and are called to practice is against literally everything in our culture. Lust is one of the great defining factors in American life – and acting on it is portrayed as normal in virtually every book, every movie, every television program, every commercial, every billboard. And that's what people hear from their friends, their neighbors, their classmates and co-workers. Modern American culture, as much as any other, is an empire of lust.
You may not be sure how to put Jesus' words into practice in your life context any more than you already do, but for your sons and daughters, your grandsons and granddaughters, this is likely to be a real struggle, and a difficult one. They'll need all the loving help, support, and gentle guidance they can get. Do they see why Jesus' teaching on marriage and sex is so much better than what the culture is offering – so much healthier, so much more joyful? Help them. It's not enough to just tell your children, “Don't do this, don't do that.” Rules and regulations are never enough. The hardened human heart is relentless in finding pretexts to defy the rules. Pray for a heart change and give them wisdom instead.
What Jesus says here is radically relevant to us here this morning. The broader culture is absolutely obsessed with normalizing lust, adultery, and divorce. You hear people say that they can't believe the Maker of the universe would care about their sex lives, much less what goes on inside their heads. And I'll tell you two things about people that say that.
One: they don't know that God loves them. Because if they knew that God loved them, they'd know that the details of their lives are something God cares about.
And two: they trivialize sex and marriage far beneath their real importance. Because while they don't define us, it's because they're too important, not too unimportant. It isn't just a physical, animal act; it invariably involves the human soul and points to the human destiny, and it doesn't get much more significant than that. And that's why normalized lust, adultery, and divorce are so dreadful – because that isn't how we were made to live, and it's killing our culture, and it's killing our neighbors.
And these sins cause havoc in the church, too. Maybe some of you can relate. I used to go to a church that was scandalized on numerous occasions by adulterous affairs between assorted pairs of people in the church – seemingly good, upstanding, active church members. And the damage was dreadful. In one case, an affair came to light between the assistant pastor and one of the women of the church. He had to leave, and the damage was utterly catastrophic. Dozens of people abandoned the church; and everyone else was deeply hurt.
And that church was not unique. You know that; you've seen it. How many people are out there – how many people do you maybe know personally – who have abandoned the fellowship of God's children because of a chain of events that traces back to the fruit of a church member's lust?
And what's more, you might be surprised at the statistics on divorce in the church, or adultery in the church – it's not as high as some scare statistics, but certainly far higher than Jesus called his people to live. And then there's pornography use in the church – when I was in seminary, I counseled several friends who were going into ministry and who still wrestled with those addictions. It's an epidemic in the world today, and the church is far from immune. This isn't something we can ignore.
Jesus' teaching on marriage and sexuality is relevant to us, because he wants to make us into a different kind of people. What if we were a church that held marriage as sacred, even while affirming celibate singleness as an option? What if we cultivated pure hearts to resist lust and forgiving hearts to resist divorce? What if we were to actually live out Jesus' vision of marriage, as best as we sinners can? What if we were committed to helping each other – providing the time and attention and love to support one another? What if we were a welcoming refuge for those hurt by the culture's misguided perversions of sex and marriage – not judging people, not condemning them, but welcoming them in and showing them the beauties of a better way, the healthy way of life?
That's the kind of people Jesus wants to make us, if we'll listen to his words and receive his Spirit. May we ever be a chaste church. Thanks be to God. Amen.