Hard Words Concerning Hard Hearts

1 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce. It’s a controversial topic among Christians that not only destroys marriages but that can do serious damage to a wide range of relationships. The loss of long-term friendships can be an unfortunate byproduct of divorce. Children can be forced to take sides in a divorce, leaving them alienated and estranged from one of their own parents.  Churches have found themselves divided over how to properly handle the divorces taking place among their congregations.

Divorce is divisive and destructive. And it was never intended as an option by God. The book of Genesis clearly reveals the will of God concerning marriage.

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:24 ESV

There was to be a unity and permanency to marriage. The very fact that God created Eve from the rib of Adam conveys the intimacy and indissolubility of their union. In God’s eyes, the man and the woman were one, inseparable whole.

But sin eventually entered the scene and damaged everything God had made, including the marriage union. It would not be long before the sanctity of marriage would be destroyed by the selfishness and self-centeredness of sin-prone human hearts. Marriages would continue to take place but, far too often, they would be driven by lust, not love; and marked by an egocentric, what’s-in-it-for-me attitude that puts self-interest ahead of God’s will.

In this section of Deuteronomy, Moses finds himself having to deal with the topic of divorce yet again. Sadly, divorce had become a real-life issue among the Israelites. Their marriages were just as susceptible to brokenness and division as those of the pagan nations around them. The Jews were just as prone to falling in and out of love as anyone else. But Moses wanted them to remember that God had very strong feelings about marriage and divorce. The prophet Malachi would later articulate God’s view concerning divorce:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” – Malachi 2:16 ESV

And this is the very issue Moses deals with in this passage. Moses describes a case where a husband has “found some indecency” in his wife that has caused her to lose favor in his eyes. In essence, he has fallen out of love with her. Moses does not elaborate on the nature of the indecency committed by the wife, but the Hebrew word is `ervah, which can literally be translated as “nakedness.” The context seems to indicate that the wife has been found guilty of sexual sin, as in adultery. And, as a result, the husband has chosen to issue her a certificate of divorce.

This brings up an important question. Does this passage condone or sanction divorce in the case of unfaithfulness or adultery? Jesus addressed this very question in His Sermon on the Mount.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus seems to support the idea that divorce is acceptable when sexual immorality is involved. But he also makes it clear that anyone who divorces his wife for any other reason will ultimately be held guilty of adultery – his own and that of his ex-wife. If they divorce for any reason other that sexual immorality and end up marrying other individuals, they will be committing adultery in God’s eyes.

Later on in His earthly ministry, Jesus would have to address this issue again. A group of Pharisees approached Him with a question regarding divorce. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3 ESV). This was a hot topic among the Jews and they were attempting to get Jesus to share His opinion on the matter. If He came down on the side of those advocating divorce, He would alienate the conservative hardliners. If He stood opposed to divorce under any circumstances, He would find Himself losing favor among the common people. So, Jesus answered them:

“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 19:3-6 ESV

Jesus went back to the book of Genesis and the creation account. He reminded them what God had done to set apart a man and woman as one. And He clarified that no one had the right to separate what God had joined together.

This answer prompted the Pharisees to ask a second question. They sensed that they had Jesus in a predicament, because it appeared that He was contradicting the Mosaic Law. So, the crafted a question based on the words of Moses found in Deuteronomy 24:1: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7 ESV).

They had Him, or so they thought. According to their interpretation of the Mosaic Law, Moses had clearly given a get-out-of-jail-free card when it came to sexual immorality on the part of a spouse. But Jesus took the opportunity to explain the underlying motivation for Moses’ words.

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.”– Matthew 19:7-9 ESV

Yes, Moses had provided sexual immorality as the single circumstance under which divorce could be sought. But it had never been God’s will. Sin had left mankind with permanent heart-damage and this had produced the need for this exemption clause concerning marriage. But none of this was what God had wanted.

Sin never produces anything of value. It is always damaging and destructive. And while Moses had provided a means by which a man could divorce his unfaithful wife, it was going to result in the potential for further sin. Take a look at the scenario that Moses paints. A man divorces his wife for marital unfaithfulness, then she goes and marries another man. That man ends up divorcing her as well. And Moses has to go out of his way to explain that the first husband is not free to remarry his wife. Why would he have to bring that up? Because of the wickedness of the human heart.

This whole convoluted scene illustrates just how twisted things can get when man does things his own way. Moses is having to paint every conceivable scenario that can come about as a result of divorce. He even describes that woman remarrying and her second husband dying. Even in that case, the first husband is not free to remarry his ex-wife.

You almost need a program to keep up with all the various permutations Moses paints. But why did he go into such great detail? Because he knew the hearts of his own people. He knew what Jesus knew: that their hearts were hard and they would find themselves following one sin with another one. So, he had to cover every conceivable scenario, providing the people of Israel with precise instructions designed to prevent further sin in the camp.

When all was said and done, this had less to do with divorce than it had to do with holiness. Moses had an ulterior motive behind these regulations regarding divorce and remarriage.

“…you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 24:4 ESV

It is a non-debatable fact that one sin tends to lead to another. While Moses had provided the Israelites with the certificate of divorce as a means of dealing with sexual immorality within the marriage union, it was going to produce further problems. The very fact that Moses describes the husband as willing to remarry his ex-wife reveals that he had not really fallen out of love with her. Her unfaithfulness had angered and hurt him, and caused him to seek a divorce from her. But as the old saying goes, time heals all wounds. Eventually, he would find himself missing his wife and tempted to remarry her when the opportunity presented itself. But Moses had to restrict his behavior. One sin could not be followed by another. Two wrongs do not make a right.

It would seem that God would prefer that the husband and wife not divorce, even in the case of unfaithfulness. Forgiveness and restoration would take precedence over divorce and the destruction of the marriage. But as Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.”

Hardened, sin-filled hearts rarely produce wise decisions. The heat of the moment can produce unhealthy outcomes that bring little more than regret and further heartache. God designed marriage to be permanent, not perfect. Two sin-prone people make a perfect marriage impossible. But when Christ is part of that marriage, and the Spirit of God indwells the two people who make up that marriage, unity and permanency is achievable – even in the face of unfaithfulness.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Deadly Serious About Marriage

22 “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

23 “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, 24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

25 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, 27 because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.

28 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.

30  “A man shall not take his father’s wife, so that he does not uncover his father’s nakedness.” – Deuteronomy 22:22-30 ESV

God had provided Israel with laws concerning every aspect of life, including marriage. And, because God knew the hearts of His people, His laws covered virtually every conceivable circumstance that might arise. He knew that, in their fallen state, they would be constantly tempted to find loopholes that would allow them to circumvent His laws. That’s why the Mosaic Law contains such explicit instructions regarding the sexual relationship between a man and a woman.

“If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins.” – Exodus 22:16-17 ESV

For one thing, these kinds of laws reveal God’s perspective on marriage. His chosen people were not free to let their base sexual passions dictate their behavior. Physical desires, while instilled by the Creator, were not to dictate human interaction. The fall had damaged mankind, leaving behind a natural proclivity to serve self at all costs. And the unequivocal prohibitions God gave the people of Israel were designed to curb their predisposition to allow their basest needs to drive their behavior. So, two of the ten commandments God gave to Moses contained restrictions regarding marriage and sex.

“You shall not commit adultery. – Exodus 20:14 ESV

“You shall not … covet your neighbor’s wife.” – Exodus 20:17 ESV

These two commands are inextricably linked. Coveting, the attraction to something you do not possess can quickly move from an emotional appetite to a physical action to satisfy that appetite. While the concept of coveting is not always negative, in this context, it carries the idea of desire for something that is off-limits. It is a greed-driven craving for that which has been forbidden. If you covet your neighbor’s wife, it won’t be long before that inappropriate desire manifests itself in action, and the coveting takes the form of adultery.

So, here in Deuteronomy 22, we find Moses providing additional instructions regarding marriage and sex. The very fact that God had Moses go into such great detail reveals the extent of Israel’s love affair with sin and selfishness.

In verses 22-30, there are five specific scenarios outlined that deal with the unseemly topics of adultery and rape. That God had Moses go into such vivid detail reveals the extent of human sin and its infectious nature. While the people of Israel had been set apart by God as His chosen possession, they still suffered from the effects of the fall and were going to find themselves constantly struggling to stifle their naturaul inclination to satisfy self at all costs.

First of all, adultery was a serious matter punishable by death. The marriage union was not something to be taken lightly or treated flippantly. When God said the two shall become one, He meant it. And while man’s sin nature would constantly entice him to replace God’s will with his own self-centered desires, there would always be consequences – deadly serious consequences.

Marriage was so important to God that even the betrothal or engagement stage of the marriage union was protected by His laws. The betrothal period was considered sacrosanct and was to be treated with an appropriate degree of reverence. Even though the betrothed couple had not yet consummated their marriage, they were considered as one in the eyes of God. They were bound together by a covenant agreement. So, if it was discovered that a betrothed woman had sexual relations with a man other than her husband-to-be, she was to be put to death, along with her partner.

But Moses provided a mitigating circumstance. What if the woman had been unwillingly raped by another man? He paints the scenario of a man sexually assaulting a woman in the middle of nowhere, where her screams for help go unanswered. In that case, the man is to be stoned to death for rape and the woman is to be exonerated.

Then, Moses provides one final case involving a man who forcibly rapes an unbetrothed virgin. In this instance, the man is responsible to marry the woman and to pay a proper dowry to her parents. In God’s eyes, the man is guilty of having stolen something of great value: the young woman’s virginity. But he is also guilty of depriving the girl’s parents of their right to a dowry. In the ancient economy, a daughter could bring a family much-needed revenue in the form of money or livestock. A son could work in the fields and help maintain the family’s resources, He could also inherit all that belonged to the family, ensuring that the legacy of his father was continued. But a daughter brought value to the family through marriage. So, if a man raped a virgin, he was obligated to marry her and to provide her family with an appropriate dowry to compensate for his sin.

The final case most likely involves a son marrying his own stepmother. The text describes her as “his father’s wife,” not as his own mother. So, it seems that the circumstance to which Moses refers involves a son marrying the widow of his deceased father. This was considered to be a case of incest, even though the woman was not his actual birth-mother. While the Mosaic Law allowed for a widow to remarry, it was not appropriate for a son to marry his widowed step-mother. Moses describes it as “uncovering his father’s nakedness.”

The apostle Paul had to address this very issue taking place within the church in Corinth.

I can hardly believe the report about the sexual immorality going on among you—something that even pagans don’t do. I am told that a man in your church is living in sin with his stepmother. You are so proud of yourselves, but you should be mourning in sorrow and shame. And you should remove this man from your fellowship. – 1 Corinthians 5:1-2 NLT

God has standards. And He requires that His people live up to those standards. As a holy and righteous God, He cannot allow those who bear His name to conduct themselves according to their own whims. Their sin natures will always lead to moral compromise and result in the defamation of God’s reputation. As His image-bearers, they were to honor His reputation through the way they conducted their lives.

The righteous behavior of God’s people is designed to display His righteousness to the world. They are to outwardly manifest His holiness through their willing obedience to His divine decrees. The laws governing their behavior came from a holy God. Their adherence to those laws was to be a visible expression of their love for Him.

Jesus told His disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV). Their obedience was less about displaying their own righteousness, than about expressing their love for the One who is righteous. Living set-apart lives, according to the righteous standards of a holy God, is a tangible way in which the people of God display for their love for Him.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Marriage Matters

13 “If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her 14 and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ 15 then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate. 16 And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her; 17 and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, “I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity.” And yet this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city. 18 Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days. 20 But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, 21 then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.– Deuteronomy 22:13-21 ESV

We once again find ourselves in difficult and, this time, delicate territory. In this section, Moses is going to address the God-ordained institution of marriage. As we have already seen, God places a high value on all human relationships, but the one between a husband and wife carry special significance to God. All the way back in the book of
Genesis, we have the record of God’s creation of the first man and woman.

Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib, and he brought her to the man.

“At last!” the man exclaimed.

“This one is bone from my bone,
    and flesh from my flesh!
She will be called ‘woman,’
    because she was taken from ‘man.’”

This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. – Genesis 2:22-24 NLT

From the very beginning, God considered the union between a man and a woman to be much more than a physical or biological transaction involving sexual intercourse. And Jesus Himself provides us with important clarification on God’s view regarding marriage. When asked by the Pharisees if a man could divorce his wife for any reason, Jesus replied:

“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?…They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’” And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Matthew 19:4-5 NLT

The marriage union was to be a permanent one. Jesus and His heavenly Father both saw the relationship between a husband and his wife as a mystical comingling of two into one. And the act of intercourse was a part of this union between the two, as each gave to the other the gift of their own body for the purpose of procreation, but also pleasure. That is why Paul warned the Corinthian believers about the danger of sex outside of the marriage context.

And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.” – 1 Corinthians 6:16 NLT

Sex outside of marriage creates an insoluble bond between the two parties. Their physical union was intended to be the consummation of their spiritual union. And God saw their sexual intimacy as a joining together of two souls.

And Paul went on to explain how a husband and wife should view their sexual relationship. The ubiquitous presence of sexual immorality was a constant threat to the sanctity of the marriage bed, so Paul warned that the husband and wife were to view their bodies as belonging to each another, not to themselves. They had no right to share themselves with anyone else.

…because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband.

The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. – 1 Corinthians 7:2-4 NLT

Which brings us back to these rather strange rules regarding marriage found in Deuteronomy. In the first case, Moses outlines a situation in which a husband accuses his wife of lying about her virginity. The circumstance seems to involve a newly married couple because the husband states, “I married this woman but when I had sexual relations with her I discovered she was not a virgin!” (Deuteronomy 22:14 NLT).

Basically, the man married the girl, decided he did not really love her, and then spread rumors that she had been sexual promiscuous before he married her. In other words, he was accusing her of adultery, a crime punishable by death. This accusation would not only ruin her reputation, but it would also result in her being stoned to death. And the sense of the passage is that the man was simply looking for a good reason to divorce his wife.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus had this to say regarding divorce: “But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery” (Matthew 5:32 NLT). It would have been easy for the man to level this accusation against his wife, providing him with a sure-fire excuse to divorce her. But Jesus would later provide further insight into the topic of divorce. At one point, He was asked by the Pharisees, “why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7 NLT).

And Jesus replied to them, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful” (Matthew 19:8-9 NLT). God never intended for divorce to be an option. But the provision was provided for in the case of unfaithfulness.

So, the scenario in Deuteronomy involves a man charging his wife of unfaithfulness based on his claim that she had not been a virgin. But Moses provides a strange but culturally acceptable means by which the woman could prove her innocence. It was a common practice in that day for the parents of the bride to place a special cloth on the couple’s bed the night the marriage was to be consummated. The purpose behind the cloth is simple, albeit a bit graphic. The cloth was collected by the parents after the wedding night and kept as proof of the woman’s virginity, the blood found on it providing evidence of her virginity.

The father of the bride could bring this cloth before the authorities to clear his daughter’s name and spare her from death. If the evidence was accepted, the husband was denied his request for divorce and required to pay a hefty fine to her parents. Not only that, he was obligated to remain permanently married to his wife. One of the things that is obvious in all of this is the young girl’s lack of input in all of this. She seems to have no say in any of it. Even the fine was paid to her parents, not to her. The only benefits she received was the clearing of her name and her release from the death sentence. She was still obligated to remain married to a man whom the text clearly states hated her.

But if the man’s charge against her proved to be true and no evidence was found of her virginity, she was to be stoned to death for the crime of adultery. Moses describes her actions as “an outrageous thing in Israel” and accuses her of “whoring in her father’s house” (Deuteronomy 22:21 ESV). Prior to her marriage, she would have been living at home with her parents. And while under her father’s roof and protection, she would have committed an act of sexual immorality. This was unacceptable behavior under the Mosaic Law and punishable by death.

But what is the point behind all of this? As we have seen before, God had rules that governed virtually every aspect of life within the Israelite community. He cared deeply about their relationships and wanted all that they did to reflect their status as His chosen people. And because marriage was a God-ordained insitutution, He created rules to govern the conduct between a husband and a wife. Virginity was given a high priority by God because of the concept of union. Purity was and still is essential to God. Honesty and integrity are non-negotiable attributes that God demands of His people. This entire scenario involves different aspects of falsehood and deception. Either the husband falsely accusing his wife of adultery or the wife attempting to hide the fact that she was not what she claimed to be when he married her. None of this was God’s way. Marriage was too important. The marriage bed was too precious. The union between a husband and wife was too holy.

But the saddest part of this entire passage is the very fact that Moses even had to address this issue at all. It reveals the underlying nature of mankind’s sin problem. God had set apart the people of Israel as His own, but He was constantly having to put restrictions on their behavior to keep them from following their sinful inclinations.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Power of God.

23 The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, 24 saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.’ 25 Now there were seven brothers among us. The first married and died, and having no offspring left his wife to his brother. 26 So too the second and third, down to the seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died. 28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the seven, whose wife will she be? For they all had her.”

29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. –  Matthew 22:23-33 ESV

saducees-and-pharisees

Jesus is facing yet another confrontation with the religious leaders. This time it is the Sadducees. They were the religious liberals of their day who rejected the idea of an afterlife, the doctrine of the resurrection or the reality of angels. For them, this life was the only life and it was to be lived in strict adherence to the written law as found in the Torah. They were elitists who rejected the oral law of the Pharisees, the “traditions of the elders” that contained hundreds of additional laws or addendums to the written law. But while they were not exactly bosom buddies with the Pharisees, they shared one thing in common with them: A hatred for Jesus. So, we see them coming to Jesus posing a question that they intended to use to expose Jesus’ heretical views on the resurrection.

Their question is a lengthy one, in the form of a short story. It’s a fictitious scenario involving what was called the Levirate Law, part of the Law of Moses found in the book of Deuteronomy. This law ruled that when a man died, leaving his wife a widow with no children, one of the deceased man’s brothers was obligated to marry the woman. The intention behind the law was to carry on the deceased man’s name and keep any inheritance he might have had in the family.

The law states, “If two brothers are living together on the same property and one of them dies without a son, his widow may not be married to anyone from outside the family. Instead, her husband’s brother should marry her and have intercourse with her to fulfill the duties of a brother-in-law. The first son she bears to him will be considered the son of the dead brother, so that his name will not be forgotten in Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:5-6 NLT).

These Sadducees had purposely created a highly unlikely scenario where the woman ends up marrying seven different brothers, each one dying before they could father a son with her. And their story ends with the woman’s death, seven times a widow and without any children. This complicated and completely contrived tale had a purpose behind it. Matthew makes it clear that the real point behind their question was the resurrection. They were not really interested in Jesus’ interpretation of the law, but in His views on the resurrection. Which is why they ended their story with the pointed question: “So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her” (Matthew 22:28 NLT).

They think they have Jesus trapped. Because the Torah did not teach explicitly about the resurrection, they did not believe in it. Their little story was designed to expose the ridiculousness of the whole idea of the resurrection. In their minds, they had shown that the very concept of the resurrection would conflict with the law itself. How could a woman have seven husbands in heaven? But Jesus exposes the flaw in their thinking and the problem in their lives. He simply states, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God” (Matthew 22:29 NLT).

This would have been like a sucker punch to the stomach. Jesus had caught them off guard and had wiped the smug look of satisfaction off their faces with one simple sentence. They prided themselves on their knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures and here was Jesus accusing them of not knowing the Word of God or the power of God. They were intelligent, but ignorant. In all their study of the Scriptures, they had overlooked God’s power. They had relegated all they know about life to the here-and-now and rejected the idea of a hereafter. So, Jesus rocked their religious sensibilities by informing them that, in the resurrected state, there will be no marriage.

Their whole scenario was pointless and irrelevant. The woman would not be married to any of the brothers, “For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Matthew 22:30 NLT). This statement by Jesus must have totally surprised the Sadducees, catching them completely off guard. And it may be just as shocking to many reading these words right now. Your concept of heaven has always included marriage. You have assumed that if you are married here on earth, you will be married in heaven. But what would be the purpose of marriage in heaven? As an institution, it was designed to illustrate the relationship between Christ and His bride, the Church. It was intended to be a physical representation of a spiritual reality.

In heaven, the union of Christ and the Church will be complete. There will no longer be a need for a symbol of that union. And while we may find that idea disturbing and possibly disappointing, we have to remember that our condition in our resurrected state will be one of perfection. We will be like Christ and have perfect fellowship with God the Father. Our primary relationship will be with Him. There will no longer be the need for another person to complete or complement us.

But Jesus knows that the real issue behind their question is their view on the resurrection, so He cuts to the chase and takes it head on.

“But now, as to whether there will be a resurrection of the dead—haven’t you ever read about this in the Scriptures? Long after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died, God said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ So he is the God of the living, not the dead.” – Matthew 22:31-32 NLT

Once again, Jesus questions their knowledge of the Scriptures, letting them know that in spite of all their study, they had missed a key point. When referring to His relationship with the great patriarchs of the Hebrew people, God had spoken in the PRESENT tense. He had said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” These words were spoken long after all three of these men were dead and gone, and yet God refers to His relationship with them in the present tense. Jesus made it clear that this was not a grammatical error, but a theological truth. There is an afterlife and there will be a resurrection. The Sadducees’ problem was that they tended to study the Scriptures with a biased view and a limited understanding of the power of God. The idea of the resurrection was impossible to them. It was inconceivable. So they simply refused to believe in it. In establishing their doctrinal views, they had unknowingly limited the power of God. Because they couldn’t understand something, they simply eliminated it from consideration. But Jesus made it clear that the resurrection was not only possible, it was undeniable and inevitable, because of the power of God.

For the Sadducees, life had become all about what they could see and explain. Their view was limited and restrictive. They had no room in their theology for an afterlife, because they couldn’t comprehend it. So, they put all their eggs in one basket, concentrating all their efforts on making the most out of this life. In doing so, they had missed the whole concept of the afterlife, of heaven and the resurrected state. For them, this earthly life was the only life. Nothing more, nothing less. And yet, there are many who live that way today. Even those who claim to be Christ-followers live as if there is no eternal life, focusing all their attention and energies on making the most of this life. They ignore what they can’t explain or understand. And yet, we are encouraged throughout the Word of God to run the race of life with the end in mind. We are to set our affections on things above, not the things of this earth. We are told to consider ourselves as strangers here, and to remember that this world is not our home, we are simply passing through on our way to somewhere better. There is an afterlife. There is a heaven. This is not all there is. And we should live with that reality in mind.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Unfailing Faithfulness.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus follows up his radical statements regarding lust and adultery with a clarification about what the law actually says regarding the topic of divorce. Once again, He opens His remarks with the words, “It was also said.” What follows was not intended to be a restatement of the law, but a clarification of the Jewish peoples’ misunderstanding of what the law actually taught. Jesus was showing them that they had misconstrued the meaning and intent of what was written in the book of Deuteronomy. Here are the actual words:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce was a problem in Israel. And the reason was that the people had been taught to minimize the moral aspect regarding divorce. Their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy centered solely on one thing: The certificate of divorce. In other words, they read this law and saw it as a license for a man to divorce his wife.

It is essential to realize that, in Israel’s ancient culture, women had no rights. They were not free to divorce their husbands. So, this law was aimed at men. And it was not intended as some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, providing men with an easy exit strategy from an unhappy marriage. But that is what it had become. Divorce had become commonplace. All it required was a written piece of paper, a certificate of divorce. There were no lawyers, courts, or judges involved. And the action was taken with little or no thought as to any spiritual or moral ramifications the decision might entail.

These verses are directly tied to the ones preceding them, where Jesus talked about adultery. Every Jew knew that adultery was wrong. But they had divorced the idea of adultery from divorce. And Jesus wasn’t going to allow them to do so. This is why He states, “I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32 ESV).

In just a few short sentences, Jesus drops the hammer on the Jewish concept of divorce. All the way back in the book of Genesis, at the very point in time when God had made Eve from the rib of Adam, He had said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). God’s intention had been that a man and woman would be joined together as one, for life. There had been no provision for divorce. And, at a later point in Jesus’ ministry, this issue would be raised by the Pharisees, when they asked Him, “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2 NLT).

The context of the passage makes it clear that they were attempting to trap Jesus with this question. It was designed to be a no-win scenario. If Jesus said a man was not allowed to divorce his wife, the crowds would turn on Him. A hard-line view on marriage and divorce had gotten John the Baptist beheaded by Herod. So the Pharisees wanted to see what Jesus was going to say, and His response was simple, yet direct. He did what He was so often prone to do. He answered a question with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?” (Mark 10:3 NLT). And they responded, “Well, he permitted it. He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away” (Mark 10:4 NLT). Now, notice closely what Jesus said to them:

“He [Moses} wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Mark 10:5-9 NLT

C. E. B. Cranfield, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, clarifies that the Deuteronomy passage to which Jesus refers…

…is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia [hardness of heart] and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. – C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark

In other words, this was a concession, and not to be confused with some form of divine sanctioning of divorce. It was intended to keep men from following up one sin with another. The certificate of divorce was a legal document that was based on one thing and one thing only: Some proof of “indecency” in the life of the wife. The Hebrew word used in the Deuteronomy passage had to do with actions related to indecency, shamefulness, or dishonor. A man couldn’t just grow tired of his wife and send her packing. He wasn’t free to “fall out of love” with her and produce a piece of paper to get rid of her. There had to be moral reasons for him to divorce her. And, if he did divorce her, he had to deal with the moral ramifications of his decision.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, unless the man’s wife was guilty of unfaithfulness, in the form of sexual immorality, he had no right to divorce her. If he did, he was causing her to commit adultery with the next man she married. Because, in God’s eyes, she and her first husband were still one. And if she did remarry and was given divorce papers a second time, the first husband was not free to remarry her, without being guilty of adultery as well. And any husband, after having divorced his wife, who decided to marry a woman who had also been divorced without proper cause, would be guilty of adultery.

Why is Jesus belaboring this point? What is the real issue He is addressing? It is faithfulness. It all gets back to the perception/reality problem. For the Jews, their perception regarding divorce was that divorce was possible under certain conditions. You just had to follow the rules. But with the help of the religious leaders, the rules had been redefined. Divorce had become an accepted norm. But Jesus was out to deal with reality. He blatantly countered that divorce results in adultery. Marriage was intended to be a covenant, a binding relationship between two people, and sealed before God Almighty. And Jesus clarifies the significance of that reality, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9 ESV).

Divorce was never God’s intention for mankind. Marriage was designed to be a permanent union, creating a divine bond between two individuals. Divorce was a breaking of the marriage covenant. It was an act of unfaithfulness. And God had stated that the only legitimate grounds for divorce would be based on unfaithfulness. And yet, He was not prescribing divorce as the solution to the problem of unfaithfulness. Jesus made it painfully clear that there was only one reason God made a provision for divorce: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

One of the things God has always looked for in His people is faithfulness. God expected the people of Israel, His chosen people, to remain faithful to Him. But He often accused them of spiritual adultery.

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had a track record of unfaithfulness to God. They couldn’t keep from wandering after other “lovers.” And the whole point Jesus seems to be making is our unfaithfulness on a horizontal level is a reflection of our unfaithfulness on a vertical level. How are we to remain faithful to God if we can’t remain faithful to our spouse? Our lack of commitment reveals a heart problem, not a compatibility issue.

God’s greatest concern is man’s relationship with Him. Sinful man is divorced or separated from God. Unfaithfulness has created a barrier between man and God. All men and women have proven themselves unfaithful to God. We have gone after other lovers, pursued other gods, and sought other relationships to meet our needs and satisfy our desires. But God, in His grace and mercy, sent His Son as the means by which we might be restored to a right relationship with Him. He wants to end our spiritual adultery and put a stop to our unfaithfulness. And it will only take place if we allow Him to renew our hearts and redeem us from our love affair with sin, self, and Satan.

Jesus is calling the people of God back to God. I love the way the apostle Paul puts it:

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Improper Plowing Partners.

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
    and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
    and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
    then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
    and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.” – 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 ESV

There is a huge difference between being a conduit through which God’s redeeming grace can flow to the lost and becoming, as Paul describes, unequally yoked with them. It was Paul’s desire that the Corinthians would be gracious and loving to all, but he feared that they would turn the love of God into tolerance and His graciousness into an inappropriate excuse to associate with the ungodly. Paul had already witnessed their unacceptable handling of the man in their congregation who had been having an affair with his stepmother. Rather than mourning over this man’s immoral behavior, they had arrogantly approved of it, allowing him to remain a part of their fellowship. But Paul had read them the riot act, boldly stating, “You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.” (1 Corinthians 5:2 NLT). Paul’s concern is that the Corinthians would see his appeal to grace as meaning that they should accept anyone and everyone, regardless of their behavior or lifestyle. Paul knew that we must meet people where they are in order to share the gospel, but that the power of the gospel would not allow them to remain in that same state, unchanged. The good news of Jesus Christ is transformative and life-changing.

Associating with the lost is necessary in order to share with them the hope available to them through faith in Jesus Christ. But Paul differentiates between casual acquaintances and unhealthy associations. The issue here is one of a believer being in a close relationship with an unbeliever. Most often, this passage gets applied to marriage, and rightfully so. But it has more far-reaching application, covering everything from business partnerships and even close friendships. The imagery Paul uses is that of a yoke. It was a common farming implement that teamed two animals together in order for them to jointly pull a plow. The idea of being unequally yoked had to do with putting two different animals with two different temperaments in the yoke together, such as an ox and a donkey. These two different animals have different physical characteristics and personalities. They would not naturally associate with one another. So in putting them in a yoke together, they would pull at different speeds and actually fight against one another, making the process of the work inefficient and unacceptable to the farmer. Their efforts would be wasted and the farmer’s goal of plowing the field, thwarted.

This is what Paul has in mind when he tells the Corinthians not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. That kind of partnership is unacceptable. He compares it to light and darkness, righteousness and lawlessness. Unbelievers, by virtue of their unredeemed state, are under the control of Satan. So why would a follower of Christ willingly align themselves with child of Satan? Yes, that sounds harsh, but the apostle John reminds us of its reality.

Dear children, don’t let anyone deceive you about this: When people do what is right, it shows that they are righteous, even as Christ is righteous. But when people keep on sinning, it shows that they belong to the devil, who has been sinning since the beginning. But the Son of God came to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born into God’s family do not make a practice of sinning, because God’s life is in them. So they can’t keep on sinning, because they are children of God.So now we can tell who are children of God and who are children of the devil. Anyone who does not live righteously and does not love other believers does not belong to God. – 1 John 3:7-10 NLT

Paul is in no way suggesting that believers have NO relationships with the lost. That would be impossible. In fact, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote:

When I wrote to you before, I told you not to associate with people who indulge in sexual sin. But I wasn’t talking about unbelievers who indulge in sexual sin, or are greedy, or cheat people, or worship idols. You would have to leave this world to avoid people like that. I meant that you are not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer yet indulges in sexual sin, or is greedy, or worships idols, or is abusive, or is a drunkard, or cheats people. Don’t even eat with such people. – 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 NLT

But he is warning about developing or maintaining unhealthy alliances with the lost. To do so is counterproductive and puts us in a position where our allegiance to Christ will be strained and hampered. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are the temple of God. Then he uses a variety of Old Testament texts to drive home his point. Just as God had chosen the people of Israel to be His people, believers had been hand-picked by God to be members of His family. They had been separated by and consecrated to God. So God expected them to disassociate themselves from the other nations that surrounded them. “Therefore, come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:17 NLT). As Peter points out, we are to live as aliens and strangers on this earth, as if we don’t belong here, because our real home is in heaven. We are Kingdom citizens. We have a different homeland and answer to a different King. And while we are on this earth, we are to operate as His ambassadors, accomplishing His will by doing His work. And that will become increasingly more difficult, if not impossible, if we align ourselves with those who do not share our allegiance to Him. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter: “But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. Those who are spiritual can evaluate all things, but they themselves cannot be evaluated by others” (1 Corinthians 2:14-15 NLT).

As children of God, we are to constantly submit ourselves to the will of God. We are to serve Him at all times. But if we allow ourselves to become unequally yoked to a non-believer, either through marriage, friendship or a business partnership, we will find ourselves in constant conflict. We will discover that our “plowing partner” has a different agenda. Rather than working together, we will fight one another, accomplishing little when it comes to God’s Kingdom work. It is one thing to share the gospel with a lost individual. It is another thing to share life with them. We must love the lost and be willing to share the hope of Christ with them. But we are never to forget that in their unredeemed state, they are still enemies of God, living in rebellion against Him. Our goal for them should be their salvation. Our purpose in associating with them is that they might know the love of God and be set free from their slavery to sin and death. But ignoring their sin in order to enjoy their friendship is dangerous for us and, ultimately, a sign of a serious lack of love for them.

Undivided Devotion.

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God. – 1 Corinthians 7:32-40 ESV

There is little doubt that Paul’s view is a bit idealistic. His motivation is sincere, but he is looking at the situation through the lens of his own life. He was a single man who had totally dedicated his life to the mission of spreading the gospel among the Gentile nations. He was totally committed to the commission given to him by Christ and would not allow anything or anyone to distract him. When Paul said, “I wish that all were as I myself am” (1 Corinthians 7:7 ESV), he was referring to his singleness. To the unmarried, he stated his opinion that “it is good for them to remain single as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:8 ESV).

Paul knows that life is difficult. It is full of commitments and requirements on one’s time. There are the daily demands of life such as work, providing for one’s family, relational issues, societal demands and expectations. And for the married individual, those things multiply exponentially. Which is why Paul advocated singleness. But this is where his idealistic nature comes out. He says, “the unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32 ESV). Not necessarily, Paul. There are plenty of unmarried men and women who find themselves anxious about anything and everything but the Lord. Singleness is not an antidote to spiritual distraction or the cure for an anemic commitment to Christ. There is no doubt that the fewer earthly commitments and distractions we have, the easier it should be for us to dedicate our time and attention to the things of God. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

Paul writes, “the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:33 ESV). He is not saying a husband’s commitment to care for the needs of his wife and family are wrong. He is simply emphasizing the reality that the married individual will have a more difficult time finding the time to serve God without neglecting his family. Again, Paul is not indicating that caring for one’s wife and family is somehow non-spiritual or insignificant. In reality, Paul knew well that a Christian was required by God to love his or her spouse and family well. They were required to live out their faith in Christ within the context of the marriage union. To be a godly wife or husband was a huge commitment. That seems to be Paul’s point. As a single man, Paul was completely free to go and do whatever God demanded of him. He had few, if any, commitments that would keep him from responding to God’s call on his life.

Ideally, “the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit” (1 Corinthians 7:34 ESV). For Paul, singleness brought a singularity of focus and he longed for others to experience that same freedom from earthly commitments and concerns. It wasn’t that he experienced no anxiety in his life, but that any anxious moments he had were usually associated with his mission as God’s apostle. Any worries he had were not about domestic issues, but about the state of the church. At one point, he told the Galatians, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Galatians 4:12 ESV). His concern for their spiritual growth was like a woman anxiously enduring the pains of labor as she waits for her child to arrive healthy and whole. Paul had few worldly distractions. He didn’t have a “honey-do” list. He had no car pool duties, no soccer games to attend, recitals to sit through, or do-it-yourself tasks to perform around the house. He was free to worry about the things of God. And Paul wanted that for each and every believers. Which is why he wrote, “ I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best, with as few distractions as possible” (1 Corinthians 7:36 NLT).

Paul makes it clear that he is not making the single individual more spiritual than a married one. To get married was not a sin. To remain single did not make you a super saint. For Paul, it was a matter of practicality. Single people have fewer distractions and demands on their time. They have more discretion regarding their time.  Paul told Timothy, “No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Timothy 2:4 ESV). He seems to have had in mind a stipulation within the Mosaic law that read, “When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be liable for any other public duty. He shall be free at home one year to be happy with his wife whom he has taken” (Deuteronomy 24:5 ESV).  Undivided attention is difficult when you have divided allegiances. Paul’s primary point in all of this has to do with devotion to God. He believed strongly that he was living in the last days. He lived as if Christ was going to return at any moment. There was no time to waste. The gospel needed to be taken to the ends of the earth. The message of good news in Jesus Christ needed to be heard by every person on every continent. To accomplish that formidable mission, Paul knew he needed the help of every able-bodied believer. He simply wanted the Corinthians to know that he was out to “secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:36 ESV). As Jesus had said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2 ESV).

 

 

Living With Eternity In Mind.

Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. – 1 Corinthians 7:25-31 ESV

For the second time, Paul uses the phrase, “now concerning.” It would appear that he is answering yet another question that he had received from the church in Corinth regarding particular matters with which they were struggling. He opened this chapter with the words, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (1 Corinthians 7:1 ESV). He has addressed the issue of sexual abstinence, agreeing that it is good, but that due to sexual temptation, it would be better to get married than to “burn with passion.” He has warned that sexual abstinence within marriage is viable only under one condition: that the couple do so in order to dedicate themselves to prayer. Otherwise, they should act as if their bodies do not belong to themselves, but to one another. Paul has indicated his desire that those who are single, remain so, so that they might dedicate all their energies to serving the Lord. But he knew that to do so and remains sexually pure would require a special gifting from God. Without it, they would be better off getting married. Those married to unbelievers should not seek a divorce, but remain in their marriage and have a godly influence on their spouse and children. And everyone should seek to remain as they were when God called them. There was no need for a radical change in circumstance, as much as a need for heart change. Slaves should seek to be godly slaves, rather than spending all their time obsessed with gaining their freedom. Everyone needed to understand that the greatest change in their lives was their newfound relationship with God. They were children of God whether they were free or not, married or single, circumcised or uncircumcised. It was their relationship with God that set them apart, not their particular circumstances.

Now Paul turns his attention to another group within the church: those who were single. The Greek word he uses is παρθένος (parthenos) and it can refer to a virgin, a marriageable woman, a single man who has remained sexually pure, or an unmarried daughter. In this context, it would seem that the term, as Paul uses it, “refers to young, engaged women who were under the influence of various groups within the Corinthian church not to go through with their marriages. The central issue would then be whether the young men and women should continue with their plans and finalize their marriages” (NET Bible Study Notes). In Paul’s day, fathers were the ones who determined who their illegible daughters would marry, so he is addressing them with these comments. But he most likely has single men in mind as well. The issue, as it has been all along, has to do with the Corinthians misunderstanding of the spiritual and physical dimensions of life. They had been heavily influenced by the philosophy of dualism and there were those within the church who were advocating abstinence from marriage altogether. Why? Because they viewed sexually activity as somehow evil. It was unspiritual, because it involved the body. Anything done in the body was viewed as either evil or nonessential. This view could lead to license, where anything was permissible because the body didn’t matter, or it could lead to asceticism, a rigorous form of self-denial.

To address this issue and to deal with those within the church who were single, Paul repeats that it would be best to remain as they are. If they are single, remain so. And he gives a more detailed explanation to his answer this time. He says, “I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is” (1 Corinthians 7:26 ESV). We are not exactly sure what Paul means by this statement, but it would appear from the context, that he is talking about the end times. He also says, “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Corinthians 7:29 ESV). Paul lived with a strong belief that the end of the age was near. It strongly impacted his approach to life. He tells the Corinthians, “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31 ESV). He had a strong sense that the return of Christ was near and that each believer should live with a sense of anticipation and eager expectation that He could appear at any moment. With that in mind, Paul encourages the singles within the church to remain so. But he also makes it clear that they are perfectly free to marry should they choose to do so. “But if you do get married, it is not a sin. And if a young woman gets married, it is not a sin” (1 Corinthians 7:28a NLT). He plainly refutes the false view of the ascetics and dualists. But he also makes it perfectly clear that he believes the days ahead will be difficult for everyone – “those who get married at this time will have troubles, and I am trying to spare you those problems” (1 Corinthians 7:28b NLT). 

The bottom line for Paul was that every believer needed to put their focus on living for Christ. They needed to have a single-minded devotion to their faith, living with their hopes and passions fixed on the future, not the present. Paul gives some curious and seemingly confusing advice: “let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it” (1 Corinthians 7:29-21 ESV). He is not advising married individuals to act as if they weren’t married. He is not advocating the neglect of your spouse. He is simply saying that marriage cannot be your sole focus in life. As believing couples, they were to make it their goal to live for Christ and to make an impact for the kingdom through their marriage. Those who found themselves in times of difficulty were not to spend all their time mourning over their problems, but they were to get to work, replacing their temporal concerns with an eternal focus. Those with money were not to live as if material things were the most important thing in life. Those who enjoy all the things this world has to offer – power, possessions, pleasure –  should hold them with open hands, because this world is passing away.

Debates about marriage and singleness, abstinence and avoidance, spirituality and worldliness, were all a waste of time if believers do not remember who they are in Christ and why they are here. Paul’s life was gospel-driven. He saw himself as the citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, not of this earth. He lived with the end in view. And he longed for the Corinthians to have the same mindset. He wanted them to share his outlook on life: “I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:13-14 NLT).

No One Said It Would Be Easy.

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? – 1 Corinthians 7:12-17 ESV

This is an extremely difficult passage and there are as many opinions concerning it as there are commentaries written about it. First of all, when Paul says, “To the rest I say, (I, not the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:7 ESV), he is not implying that what he has to say concerning these matters is simply his personal opinion and not divinely inspired. He is merely indicating that this is not something he heard taught by Jesus Himself. But as an expert in the Old Testament and an apostle of Jesus Christ, and due to the fact that he was divinely inspired by the Spirit of God, the words he writes must be considered as coming from God.

His emphasis in these verses shifts from addressing married couples who are comprised of believing husbands and wives. Now he is addressing those who find themselves married to an unbeliever. This was probably a very common issue in the church in Corinth. There were likely a good many who had come to faith in Christ apart from their spouse and who found themselves in a potentially difficult and compromising circumstance. If there were children involved, the situation was even more complicated. There were obviously those who were counseling that it would be better for a Christian to divorce their unbelieving spouse than to remain married. Paul would even give what appears to be similar counsel in his second letter to the Corinthians:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? – 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 ESV

And while this passage has been used to defend the ban on Christians marrying non-Christians, that was likely not Paul’s original point. He was addressing the need to avoid the kinds of relationships with unbelievers that might lead to spiritual defilement. This obviously applied to marriage, but was not restricted to it. Paul was not counseling or sanctioning that Christians separate themselves completely from the world. That would be impossible. In fact, earlier in this letter he referred to another piece of correspondence to the Corinthians in which he told them, “not to associate with sexually immoral people” (1 Corinthians 5:9 ESV). But he clarified what he had meant by saying, “not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world” (1 Corinthians 5:10 ESV). So Paul was in no way a proponent of Christian isolationism.

So what is a Christian to do who finds themselves married to an unbeliever? The main point here has to do with divorce, and Paul would say that it is wrong for a believer to divorce their unbelieving spouse. Rather, they should see themselves as a godly influence on their home. Their very presence within the home sanctified it or set it apart. This is where some of the difficulty comes about when interpreting what Paul means when he says, “the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband” (1 Corinthians 7:14 ESV). It would be inconsistent with the rest of Scripture to say that Paul means the believing spouse “saves” the marriage and converts the unbelieving partner. The lost spouse is made “holy” only in the sense that he or she finds themselves benefiting from the presence of a believer living within the same walls. Living in close proximity with a Spirit-filled believer could not help but have an influence on them. And this is true of the children in the home as well. They are not automatically saved as a result of having one believing parent, any more than those children who have two believing parents would be. But in a sense, they would be set apart by God by virtue of His having called one of their parents to saving relationship with His Son.

The real point of these verses seems to deal with what a believer is to do if their unbelieving spouse chooses to divorce them. The truth is that the very presence of a Christian in the home could drive the unbelieving partner away. As Peter indicates in his letter, there is a chance that a godly wife could have a positive impact on her unbelieving husband.

In the same way, you wives must accept the authority of your husbands. Then, even if some refuse to obey the Good News, your godly lives will speak to them without any words. They will be won over by observing your pure and reverent lives. – 1 Peter 3:1-2 NLT)

But there is also a good chance that her presence could result in conviction and conflict. The same is true of a believing husband. There is no guarantee that a lost spouse will be led to the Lord by a believing partner. I think that is what Paul means when he asks, “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:16 ESV). So Paul’s counsel is that if a Christian finds themselves served with divorce papers by an unbelieving spouse, they should not fight it. But at the same time, they should not be the instigators of it. Paul simply says, “if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (1 Corinthians 7:15a ESV). His bottom line goal was peace, not conflict. “God has called you to peace” (1 Corinthians 7:15b ESV). God receives no glory from a marriage in which two unequally yoked individuals fight and feud with one another. If the marriage is relatively conflict-free and the unbelieving partner is willing to remain married, the Christian should in no way seek divorce. As Paul will write in the following verses, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called” (1 Corinthians 7:20 ESV).

These are difficult words. But they deal with the reality of the gospel entering into a difficult and depraved world. When light shines in the darkness, there cannot help but be conflict. When believers come into contact with the lost, there will be tension, testing, and the potential for trouble. Jesus warned us that the world would hate us. Our redemption as believers places a target on our back and makes us prime candidate for persecution by the enemy. The life of a believer is not an easy one. Our call to live set apart in a world that is set against us will not be a cake walk. We will be misunderstood. At times we will be mistreated. But we will never be abandoned by our God.

The Christ-like Life.

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. – 1 Corinthians 7:1-6 ESV

As is usually the case in any congregation, there were two views or opinions influencing the church in Corinth. We have already seen that their Greek, dualistic way of thinking to see all sin as something done in the body and, therefore, permissible. They viewed themselves as being made up a two natures: the body and the spirit. And they were using this pagan outlook on life to excuse their immoral behavior. But there was evidently another group within the church who viewed believed in dualism, but viewed it as a threat. Their solution was to practice a form of abstinence. Since they viewed the body as evil or sinful, they would simply deny the body anything that might cause it to sin, including sexual relations. In a letter written to Paul by the congregation, they had commented: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1b ESV).  And while Paul sees a seed of truth in this statement, he also see a serious danger. Their ongoing struggle with temptation toward sexual sin was going to make abstinence extremely difficult to carry off. The solution, according to Paul, was God-ordained marriage. He tells them, “because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs” (1 Corinthians 7:2-3 NLT). It is not as if Paul did not believe in abstinence or celibacy. In fact, in just a few verses he tells the unmarried and widows in the church , “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 ESV).

Abstinence may result in the absence of sexual contact, but it cannot eliminate the problem of lust. It was Jesus who said, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28 ESV). Simply refraining from sexual intercourse does not fix the problem, because the problem lies within the heart. Again, Jesus said, “For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:19 NLT). Their attempt to separate the spiritual and the physical was based on man’s logic, not God’s Word. God had created marriage as the proper means by which men and women could enjoy His gift of sexual intimacy. And while marriage does not eliminate the problem within the hearts of men and women toward sexual, it does provide a God-ordained outlet for the expression and experience of the act of sex between a man and a woman.

But Paul knew that the dualistic viewpoint of the Corinthians could even be used to mess with God’s divine design for marriage. There would be those who chose to practice abstinence even within the context of their marriage. Paul makes it very clear: “Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer” (1 Corinthians 7:5a NLT). They were not to deny one another sexual intimacy, unless they had a very good spiritual reason for doing so, and the only one Paul lists is prayer. And even if they practice abstinence for the purpose of prayer, they are to do so for a very limited time period. Why? Because Paul knew their hearts. Which is why he warned them , “Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won’t be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5b NLT).

At the heart of Paul’s commands on this topic are his concern for the spiritual well-being of the congregation in Corinth. He had a burden that their relationship with Christ be lived out and permeate every area of their lives, including their marriages. He made a concession toward abstinence in marriage only if it was done in order to concentrate on more pressing spiritual matters, such as prayer. For one spouse to deny the other their rightful access to sexual fulfillment would be un-Christlike and selfish. Paul makes it clear that the husband’s body does not belong to him, but to his wife. And the wife’s body belongs to her husband. There is to be a selflessness and an attitude of sacrifice at the heart of every Christian marriage. It is not more spiritual to deny your spouse what God has intended for their good, in order that you might satisfy your own desires.

I think Paul’s admonition to the Philippian believers echoes his thoughts here. “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (Philippians 2:3-4 NLT). What better place to practice those practical warnings than within the context of a marriage? Any attempt to live a more godly life that ends up hurting someone else or denies the other person their rights, is misguided at best. We are to die to self. We are to put the other person first. We are to sacrifice. Spirituality is not about abstinence, but about obedience – obedience to the will of God as expressed in the Word of God and as lived out by the Son of God. He is our model. The Christ-like life is one of sacrifice, service, humility and selfless love for others.