top of page
  • Writer's pictureBOO

SM #21: Love > Law

Updated: 15 hours ago

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. ~ Jesus (Matthew 5:31-32)

[Before we begin: For those of you who have been tracking with this Sermon on the Mount series, thank you for your patience with me getting back to posting. I've taken a few weeks away to work on other projects and plan now to get back to more regular writing here. I know my mind and heart need the focus of this Sermon on the Mount series.]

SUMMARY: Read this and skip the rest (if you want)

  • Love is better than law. Law enforces bare minimum morality, while love encourages the highest ideals.

  • Jesus teaches on marriage and divorce right after teaching on anger and lust, and right before teaching on truth-telling. The context points to the genius of Jesus.

  • God originally created marriage to be a lifelong one-flesh union, but sin has made this vision increasingly difficult to actualize.

  • For a time, God managed our hard-hearts with law. Now he wants to soften our hearts so we can live by love.

  • The temptation to live by religious law instead of love derailed the first-century church. The temptation to live by civic law instead of love is derailing the 21st-century church.

  • The way of love aims for the high goal of absolute moral perfection, while still responding to all our failings to meet that goal with grace. This is the road to maximum human flourishing.

CORE (The heart of the message)

Love, not law, is the way to maximum human flourishing. Law helps hard-hearted people live within moral boundaries, but Jesus wants to heal our hard hearts so we can love like we were always meant to.

This passage of Jesus is about marriage and divorce, yes, but it is also about something bigger: a better way of living with the help of the Holy Spirit.

CONTEXT (What’s going on before and after this passage)

Three contexts are helpful here: i) the immediate scriptural context, ii) the larger scriptural context, and iii) the cultural context.

i) The immediate scriptural context

The context for every moral command in the Sermon on the Mount is the grace, mercy, and peace found in the Beatitudes and beyond. Remember Jesus began the sermon with blessing for the broken and the bankrupt. Let's keep God's forgiveness and mercy in mind while we also strive to understand, embrace, and live out his ethical instructions to the best of our understanding and ability.

This context of grace is important because:

Teaching Jesus' divorce sayings is unpleasant work because it often hurts people who have already been hurt enough. It can be hitting people who are already down. ~ Frederick Dale Bruner (The Christbook)

Jesus has just finished addressing the relationally destructive power of anger (which he equates with murder) as well as the dehumanizing sin of looking with lust (which he equates with adultery). He now emphasizes the significance of marriage and the sorrow of divorce. This progression of thought makes sense: think of how many marriages end in divorce because of uncontrolled anger and/or lust. And after this illustration, Jesus will address truth-telling. So the topic of divorce is sandwiched right between lust and lies. Appreciating the immediate context helps us see the genius of Jesus.

(Note: This third of the six antitheses is so closely linked to the second that some Christians have assumed this is just expanded thinking within the second antithesis, thus making a total of five instead of six. But most scholars see this as its own example, though logically related to the previous points.)

ii) The larger scriptural context

This saying on marriage and divorce is the shortest of the six antitheses, probably because Matthew returns to this topic later, in chapter 19, where he records Jesus' more robust and in depth teaching on this same topic. So it is good to study Matthew 5:31-32 in partnership with Matthew 19:1-12 (more about Matthew 19 in a moment).

Jesus cares a lot about marriage and divorce because he cares about us. In the Old Testament we learn that God intended marriage to create a "one flesh" union which creates a permanent bond of love (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:24). In this way, as discussed in our last study, human marriage becomes a living analogy of our relationship with God (Isaiah 54:5-8; Jeremiah 31:32; Hosea 2:19-20; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-27; Revelation 19:7-9; 21:8-27).

Both the quality and duration of the marriage covenant are important. It isn't enough to stay together and avoid divorce in order to claim marital success. Neither is it enough to be loving, kind, and compassionate, until we decide to call it quits. Marriage is meant to be a relationship built on a love that is both lived out daily and a love that lasts our entire lives. This is the goal of marriage, even though all married couples will fail to live up to that goal in many ways. In its essence, marriage is covenantal other-centredness.

All of this means that if or when any one-flesh marriage comes to an end, emotional hurt can be widespread. Divorce causes potential pain to: a) the couple themselves, b) children, c) extended family and friends (since marriage also draws extended families and friendship circles together), and even d) our experience and understanding of God's love for us. For when God says in Scripture "I love you like a faithful husband", we are meant to think of loving permanence and caring commitment.

Marriage failure, in quality or duration, interferes with God's revelation of himself to our souls.

Marriage, then, is the most meaningful human relationship, as well as the hardest relationship to get right. All because of the far-reaching effects of sin. The Bible tells us that, over time sin calcifies and solidifies hearts, making our souls less responsive to our own conscience and God's Spirit. We develop spiritual calluses or heart sclerosis, that is, hardness of heart (Proverbs 28:14; Jeremiah 17:9; Daniel 5:20; Zechariah 7:12; Ephesians 4:18; Hebrews 3:8; etc). We don't love others with the tenderness and responsiveness we were meant to, and we don't care about consequences for wrongdoing the way we ought to.

Hard-heartedness is the most deadly epidemic of all human history.

So, because of human hard-heartedness, for a period of time God allowed divorce to occur more freely, giving guidelines to protect the most vulnerable, in this case women (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). The acceptable reason for divorce given in the Torah is finding some form of "uncleanness" or "nakedness" or "indecency" (depending on the different English translations of the same Hebrew word) with one's wife (only men had the power to divorce). In Jesus' day, Rabbis debated what this "uncleanness" could be. (See the cultural context below.)

So the Torah seemed fairly lenient on the issue of divorce. But Jesus wants his disciples to rise above Torah permissiveness and catch a vision of lasting loving marriage, rooted not in Torah commandments, but in the opening chapters of Genesis.

But what about our hard hearts? How can disciples of Jesus live the Genesis vision of lasting marriage and not give in to the Deuteronomy concessions for easy divorce? The answer is the New Covenant and the changes it brings.

God promised that one day he would establish a New Covenant - a better covenant (Hebrews 7:22) with better promises (Hebrews 8:6) and a better hope (Hebrews 7:18-19). This new and better covenant would provide us with new hearts, soft hearts, hearts of flesh instead of stone, that is, hearts that are more responsive to the Spirit's leading and more inclined toward other-centred loving (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:25-27).

Jesus claims to inaugurate this New Covenant (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Hebrews 8:7-13), which includes the heart-softening agent of the Holy Spirit given to all. And with the gift of a new heart, new spirit, and God's Spirit within us, God can call us back to his original intention for marriage: a lifelong loving covenant.

So New Covenant living is more like God's original design for human life in the garden of Eden than it is like the law-based religion of the Old Testament.

The Bible shows us that the way of law was never "best practices" for humankind, but was made up of concessions meant to give basic boundaries for people with hard hearts. Hard-heartedness is a common human reality, apart from the tenderizing presence of the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, hard-heartedness is equated with a callused and insensitive heart (e.g., Exodus 7:13, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; also see Romans 2:5), which needs to be spiritually circumcised (e.g., Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4), that is, sensitized to the Spirit's will and way.

Jesus addresses all of this in Matthew 19:1-12, the best context for understanding our passage for this study.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:3-9)

This passage helps flesh out Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, tells us more about the role of law, and points with hope toward the New Covenant way of the Spirit.

Jesus directs our attention back in time, past the Torah, pre-Moses, to the Garden of Eden and God's original design. He puts the emphasis on the "one flesh" union of a husband and wife. He says marriage is created by God, not by the State, and therefore God does not always recognize divorce, even a legal divorce, if it is for selfish or unloving reasons. Yes, the Old Testament permitted easy divorce because of hard hearts, but since the coming of the New Covenant, like before the Fall of Genesis 3, hard-heartedness is not a dominating force in the redeemed human psyche. The original human and the New Covenant human are designed to live out the soft-hearted ethics of other-centred love.

iii) The cultural context

At the time of Jesus, the debate about what constitutes biblical grounds for divorce was a hot issue. Three popular schools of thought were:

1. The School of Rabbi Shammai: Divorce is allowed only for adultery.

2. The School of Rabbi Hillel: Divorce is allowed for any spousal failure, including being disrespectful, unsubmitted, or even a bad cook.

3. The School of Rabbi Akiba: Divorce is allowed for any reason, including if the husband simply wants to marry someone prettier.

(See The Mishnah, Gittin 9:10)

On this issue, Jesus' position seems to be closest to Rabbi Shammai, except he also goes beyond any one position. Jesus will say, in Matthew 5 and 19, that sexual immorality is the only acceptable grounds for divorce, but not because he is merely choosing sides in a Rabbinic debate about how to interpret the Torah. Jesus is not helping us interpret Deuteronomy 24, but walking right past the Law to help us see God's original design in Genesis: a permanent, loving, "one flesh" union of bodies and souls and lives and loves.

Jesus is teaching us to ask the right ethical question in any given situation: Not, "What does the Bible allow me to get away with?" but "How can I love like I was created to?"

CONSIDER (Observations about the passage)

It has been said. Jesus is referring to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Note that he says "said", not "read". This reminds us that most of Jesus' audience heard the Scriptures read at their local synagogue. Personal Bible study is a modern invention. Community learning is the historical norm.

A certificate of divorce. In ancient times, men could end their marriage and send their wives away for any reason, based on their understanding of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Moses at least commanded that a document of divorce must be given to the wife to prove she is legally single and able to marry again. This is an example of one way the Old Covenant managed (rather than cured) human hard-heartedness, limiting damage but not healing hearts.

But I say to you. The word order of the original is "I however say to you" which puts the emphasis on the "I" (Greek, egó) - the most important word in the paragraph. (More on this in a previous study.)

Except for sexual immorality. This phrase is known as "the exception clause" and appears again in Matthew 19:9. (When Mark and Luke record this same teaching, they do not include the exception clause, nor does the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, though he adds his own exceptions.) The Greek word translated "sexual immorality" (or sometimes "fornication") is porneia, from which we get the English word - you guessed it - pornography. It refers to any sexual activity outside of God's design. This includes adultery, but goes beyond that to include any sexual sin before, within, or outside of marriage. Matthew's Jesus distinguishes between adultery (moicheia) and sexual sin in general (porneia) in Matthew 15:19, so they are distinct though often overlapping. In some Bible passages, porneia refers to incest, such as cousins getting married (used this way in the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:16-18), and the Catholic church emphasizes this understanding here. Broadly applied, porneia could include a variety of sexual sins that potentially harm a marriage, like hiding previous sexual history, or abusive sexual behaviour within marriage, perhaps a destructive use of pornography, or even misusing sex by withholding it as a kind of punishment, though there can also be valid reasons for refraining from sex for a season within marriage as well (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7:1-6). Sex is so much a part of our personal identities and the beautiful bonding of our marriage relationships, we should avoid all weaponizing of sex for personal power or selfish pleasure at the expense of the wellbeing of those we love. Zeroing in on what is the most likely meaning of porneia in this passage, Jesus is likely using porneia to refer to serious sexual sin, like adultery primarily though not exclusively. Jesus acknowledges that in some cases the sin of porneia will become a marriage ending event. To be clear, Jesus is not commanding divorce in such cases, since repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are always the highest embodiment of the Gospel for the Christian Church (e.g,, Matthew 18:15-35). But Jesus knows that there is only so much the human heart can bear, and sometimes sexual sin will break a marriage beyond repair. One thing is for certain, Jesus is challenging and changing the Mosaic Law - adultery is now grounds for divorce, not an occasion for stoning to death.

Makes her commit adultery. The assumption behind this phrase is that a divorced person will likely marry again. Especially women in Jesus' day would seek out a new marriage partner to make a life for themselves, since job opportunities were scarce for woman. Jesus makes the point here that if the divorce is not valid according to God then he does not recognize the divorce even if it is legal according to the laws of the land, which means any future marriage is really adultery in God's eyes, since he sees the original couple as still married. Whoa. So someone could get a legal divorce and enter a new legal marriage and God says: Hold on. Back up. I don't recognize any of that. What a strong reminder that marriage is ultimately something that God, not the State, brings into being. Just because something is legal doesn't make it moral, and vice versa. The ethics of citizens of the Kingdom of God must come from God, and not our surrounding culture. [As an aside: As I mentioned in the previous study, I am currently living in the unusual position of having to parse out the difference between moral and legal guilt in my own life. I am in an odd season of life where I am both owning and declaring my moral guilt while also actively defending my legal innocence. It is exhausting, educational, and so very humbling. Thank you for your prayers.] We should also note that the early Church changed the script for single people (whether never married or through divorce). Jesus founded a community that sustained and celebrated single people - remembering that our Lord and Saviour himself remained single. This is a strong commission to the Church to function like family for all.


(Thoughts about meaning and application)

Jesus wants his disciples to take marriage seriously, since marriage - that is, intimate, covenantal, loving, one-flesh friendship - mirrors our relationship with God.

I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. ~ Yahweh (Hosea 2:19-20)

Marriage creates a family out of bond rather than blood. In God's design, before a family is biologically related (parents and children), they are first related by vow, promise, and partnership (husband and wife). This may be why adoption (family bonding through covenant over biology) is such a prevalent and precious idea in New Covenant thinking (Romans 8:15, 23; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5).

Love, even more than blood, is the foundation of family. And family is the foundation of everything else.

Christians debate how far to apply the exception clause of porneia today:

  • Can Christian spouses divorce each other for flirting with other people? (Probably not.)

  • What about getting drunk and kissing someone else at a party without full-blown adultery? (Probably not, but maybe?)

  • What about pornography? (A one-time mistake, occasional use, or a regular habit?)

What are your thoughts?

And can the exception clause of porneia be applied in principle to other serious sins that are not sexual? Porneia refers to sexual sin, yes, but why would Jesus allow husbands to divorce their wives for adultery but not allow wives to divorce their husbands for, say, battery?

Christians disagree on this topic. (Surprise!)

The Catholic Church believes nothing can dissolve a marriage bond, period. So they interpret Jesus' exception clause as referring to an inappropriate marriage in the first place, such as cousins marrying. According to the Catholic church, divorce is always wrong, alway sin. And yet, if the marriage is found to be inappropriate, the Catholic church makes allowances for annulment (declaring the marriage null and void from the beginning). Catholic-influenced translations of this teaching of Jesus, such as the New American Bible, reflect this belief:

But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery. ~ JESUS (Matthew 5:32, NAB)

Most Protestants hold the theory that Jesus' exception clause refers to adultery, in which case divorce is an ethical option. But they disagree on whether a legitimately divorced person can ever remarry with God's blessing.

Some Protestants believe in adultery and abandonment as reasons for divorce, based on Paul's writings in 1 Corinthians 7. But again, they debate whether or not a legitimately divorced person should ever remarry.

Thankfully, a growing number of Christians today realize that any legalistic, myopic, or decontextualized interpretation of this or any biblical teaching misses the heartbeat of Jesus.

We should remember that Jesus is here addressing a specific law that applies to the decision-making power of men in marriage. That does not mean what Jesus says here is the sum total of everything to be said about marriage, divorce, and remarriage. (For instance, in 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul goes beyond Jesus' explicit teachings on marriage and divorce, yet speaks in the Spirit and love of Christ.)

We should reject all religious legalism that creates a hierarchy of judgement about divorces. (E.g., "My divorce is better than your divorce because mine was for adultery and yours was only for abuse." Yuck.)

What all Christians can agree on is that Christ-followers should not be asking "What reason can I use to do what I want?", but "How can I love like Jesus?" Reframing the question will lead to different courses of action in difficult situations.

In a fallen world, even the most precious relationships can suffer from sin, selfishness, shame, and relational breakdown.

Jesus sets the standard high, and then wraps it in grace, mercy, and compassion.

Remember that Matthew has already recorded the case of Joseph, who decided to divorce Mary quietly for her apparent unfaithfulness because he was a "righteous" man (Matthew 1:19). Both Joseph's decision to divorce Mary for her (wrongly assumed) infidelity AND his decision to do this quietly so as not to attract attention to her failure are part of Joseph being declared righteous. Joseph was practicing a high standard wrapped in grace. (Apparently, based on this and other passages, holding someone accountable for their sin while refusing to publicly shame them is what Jesus considers the "righteous" way.)

So in fact, in some cases, divorce may be an act of love, bringing accountability into a sinful situation.

"Divorce, if it were rightly done, would be done as an act of love. It would be dictated by love and done for the honest good of the people involved." ~ Dallas Willard (The Divine Conspiracy)

There must be occasions when divorce is the loving choice, since God himself divorces Israel as appropriate accountability for their spiritual adultery with other gods.

I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. ~ Yahweh (Jeremiah 3:8)

If you have faced or are facing a difficult divorce, do not allow shame to dominate your soul. Recall that we worship a divorced deity. God understands.

And yet, two things to remember: i) God did not rush into divorce after Israel's spiritual adultery. He only chose that option after repeated warnings that went unheeded. And ii) Even then, God never gives up. After he declares his spiritual divorce from Israel, God says he is determined to start afresh and remarry them in the future (see Jeremiah 3:11, 14, 23).

The first two of the six antitheses were not really full blown "antitheses" in that Jesus didn't undo or contradict a Mosaic Law. Instead, Jesus helped us find the internal principle embedded within the external law (i.e., "Do not murder" became "Renounce anger and judgement in favour of forgiveness and reconciliation", and "Do not commit adultery" became "honour people's full humanity rather than using anyone as kindling for our own lust furnace").

In this third of the six antitheses, Jesus doesn't follow that same pattern of merely internalizing an external rule. Instead, Jesus completely undoes a lax law and tightens up a lose law. He abrogates, nullifies, and replaces an Old Testament Law with his New Covenant way of Love, which is more in tune with God's original design for human relationships. Jesus not only contradicts the loose and lax permissiveness of Deuteronomy 24:1-4, he counsels divorce instead of death as appropriate consequence for adulterers. Who does he think he is - God? (Yes, Rabbi Shammai also counselled divorce in cases of adultery, but only because Romans restricted conquered peoples from exacting their own death penalty. Jesus, on the other hand, is less concerned with interpreting Scripture to keep the Romans happy; he is laying down the law for his new kingdom.)

Jesus is not just interpreting Scripture; he is creating new Scripture. And we find that Jesus' way of love-over-law does not amount to a lawless free-for-all or a mushy gushy moral goo, but love actually sets the standards higher.

Let's examine how the way of love and the way of law are different...

Laws address the bare minimum of human morality: don't murder, don't speed, do pay your taxes, etc, or else. Laws create order in our world. Good. They help society exist without devolving into absolute chaos. Wonderful. But laws alone do not help a society thrive in harmony, creativity, and community. Laws don't touch our hearts or deepen our relationships.

For instance: When driving through a neighbourhood and seeing a School Zone speed limit sign, where does your mind go? Do you slow down to avoid getting a ticket, or because you care about child safety? Living by law can influence our behaviour, but it can also distract us from asking the more important other-centred questions that love requires.

In Canada, the law says a husband cannot beat his wife. But the law does not say a husband must have a tender and responsive heart toward his wife and treat her with the utmost honour and self-sacrificial care. For that, we turn to Jesus' way of love, also called "the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2), and the heart-tenderizing ministry of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:25-33).

In fact, the apostle Paul says that laws may keep our behaviour in line because of our fear of punishment, but they can actually have a negative effect on our hearts. Laws can tempt us to break them by inciting a loophole mentality. Laws can lead us to ask ourselves, "What can I get away with?" A speed limit might lead us to asking, "How much over the limit can I go before I attract police attention?" Love, on the other hand, leads us to ask, "How can I be a blessing?"

When we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what bound us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code. ~ The apostle Paul (Romans 7:5-6)

So, the way of law is not the way of Christ. Just staying within the boundaries of law is not good enough, not loving enough, to walk the straight and narrow path of Jesus. Law can never lead to maximum human flourishing. For that, we need love.

As an aside: it is interesting that the Church in the first and twenty-first centuries both struggle with the role and influence of "law". In the first-century Church, one of their ongoing struggles was slipping from the New Covenant way of grace back into an Old Covenant way of religious law. They were blending the love-ethic of Jesus with the law-ethic of Moses. The writers of Scripture address the problem in many passages, including the entire book of Galatians. These first-century churches were turning to law instead of love to be their guide, and the apostle Paul rebukes them sharply.

We see the same tendencies at work in the Church today. In the first century, the law that believers used to shove grace aside was religious law - turning to Torah for group identity and guidance. In the twenty-first century, the law that can sometimes eclipse grace in church life is civic law - pursuing social justice apart from the New Covenant emphasis on mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

Don't get this wrong: today's law is GOOD, just like the biblical law was good (Romans 7). You may know many good people who are involved in the legal world and should be glad they do the important work they do. [I personally have spent the last year of my life getting a front row seat (literally) to the inner workings of the legal world, and I am impressed with the caliber and hard work of all those involved.]

But whenever the Church places law ahead of grace, our mission of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration of broken people and broken relationships will be derailed.

For instance, in today's world...

  • LOVE SAYS: when someone fails, go face-to-face to win your brother or sister.

  • LAW SAYS: stay in your corner and don't communicate, except through lawyers. Talk about but not to the other side.

  • LOVE SAYS: offer forgiveness personally, seventy times seven.

  • LAW SAYS: sue, prosecute, and pontificate, always from a distance.

  • LOVE SAYS: Focus on the plank in your eye before helping with the speck in theirs.

  • LAW SAYS: Getting the guilty punished is all that matters. (And that's never me.)

  • LOVE SAYS: Let's go rescue the lost sheep.

  • LAW SAYS: Let's punish the lost sheep for wandering off.

  • LOVE SAYS: Be quick to apologize whenever you may be in the wrong.

  • LAW SAYS: Don't apologize, because that admission of guilt may be used against you in court.

  • LOVE SAYS: Welcome home every prodigal son and daughter.

  • LAW SAYS: Make them pay.

(Okay your turn. Try a few Love/Law comparisons of your own.)

The legal system is not designed to move people toward forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. That's not its purpose. The legal system creates adversaries - accusers and defendants - not brothers and sisters working together for truth and reconciliation.

Again to be clear, the legal system is good. We need the legal system to keep our earthly kingdoms functional. But citizens of the kingdom of heaven on earth must go beyond what is legal to what is loving. Love, to be sure, does not mean turning a blind eye to sin. Love leans in. Love includes confrontation, truth-telling, repentance, forgiveness, restoration, reconciliation, and education. Grace is robust. But the goal of love is always the flourishing of everyone involved - victim and victimizer, sinner and saint.

Law is concerned with what is fair; grace is unfair. Until we understand and embrace this truth - the unfairness of grace - we will continue to stray back into Old Covenant thinking in our pursuit of justice.

The legal system is good, but it isn't gospel. The mercy-full and reconciliatory way of the Gospel is so radical, when the Church follows this way we will look like fools to the world around us.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. ~ The apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 1:25; also see 2:14-15; 3:19)

And when the Church today turns to law instead of grace to guide us, we will stop learning, loving, and living out the Gospel. Whether it is a fear of litigation or fear of social embarrassment or a host of other legally induced phobias, fear rather than faith was never meant to guide the Church.

For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control. ~ The apostle Paul (2 Timothy 2:7)

So in our passage, Jesus is teaching us that true faithfulness in marriage is not just the absence of adultery - it is to love, honour, and cherish our spouse in all ways, large and little.


(Personal reflection)

I confess that reading some commands of Christ out of context leaves me feeling that Jesus is sometimes more harsh than healing. Few life events can produce more pain, sorrow, and deep core heartache than the fracturing of a marriage and family. My heart immediately bends toward those people who have already gone through the pain of divorce and perhaps are remarried and now read Jesus' teachings as laying on them an even heavier burden.

"In a cracked world, even the followers of Jesus will commit sins that destroy a marriage." ~ Scot McKnight (Sermon on the Mount)

Do Christians whose marriage has ended now need to desperately assess if their reason for divorce qualifies as "porneia" in order to avoid shame? Different Christian traditions define the exemption clause differently - who should they listen to? And what if they decide their divorce doesn't qualify in God's eyes? Must they try to reconcile? What if they have remarried? Must they consider leaving their current spouse to reunite with their former spouse? Or should they just continue on and feel guilty about it the rest of their lives? This is messy! And doesn't this whole teaching potentially kick someone when they are already down?

I have been having conversations with my academic-agnostic-Jesus-appreciating-yet-not-yet-fully-embracing Father-in-Law about each of these 1820 studies. Hi Hans! (He reads each one faithfully and I'm grateful.) Hans routinely makes a strong case to me that Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount can become ultimately discouraging because he sets the standard too high. I get that: Anger is murder? Looking with lust is adultery? Love your enemies? Turn the other cheek? Really Jesus? And doesn't Jesus sum it all up by saying "Be perfect" (Matthew 5:48)? Yikes. Wouldn't this have the effect of causing the honest person to give up and go home? Who can live up to this standard?

Hans' thinking is not unlike some Protestant scholars who teach that the entire Sermon on the Mount is really more like Old Covenant law than New Covenant grace. Jesus' teaching, so this theory goes, is designed to increase our sense of hopelessness regarding our ability live a truly moral life so we are driven toward God's grace instead. This popular Protestant theory teaches that the purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to exposes our inability to save ourselves through successful moral living by setting the standard so impossibly high, that it discourages all self-righteousness and prepares us for the Gospel of grace (apparently only delivered later by the apostles). This theory tends to overlook God’s grace inherent in the sermon (e.g., blessings for the spiritually broken and bankrupt, needing mercy, righteousness, and forgiveness).

This theory that the Sermon on the Mount is meant, not to be obeyed, but to drive us toward grace, also fails to adequately explain the fact that the resurrected Jesus told his disciples to help ALL of his future followers live out ALL of his teaching ALL the time (Matthew 28:20), which must include training disciples today how to obey and embody the Sermon on the Mount as best we can understand, interpret, and apply it.

We might not always live it right, but we should try to live it.

Back to Hans' objection: This teaching on marriage and divorce is case-in-point, says Hans. Times have changed, more people get divorced (roughly half of all marriages in the West), and the ideal of a permanent marriage is unrealistic. Jesus, so this train of thought goes, is out of touch with our contemporary times and his teaching is bound to just make us all feel more guilty, or intimidate us away from ever getting married. We cannot demand perfection of ourselves lest we will all become more discouraged, not more motivated.

That seems to be the initial reaction of Jesus' disciples when they processed this challenging teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage, which Jesus repeats in Matthew chapter 19:

If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry. ~ The Disciples (Matthew 19:10)

I understand Hans' objection, and the disciples' too. And Jesus' response doesn't show signs of him going easy on them. He basically replies, "Yup. Have you considered singleness?"

So, is the high standard of Jesus' ethical instruction a bit of a miss? Is it ultimately unkind and unfruitful to set the standard so high?

My response is this: perfection, wrapped in grace, is always the best goal.

Think of it this way: When a student writes a difficult exam that they will be happy to get 80% on, they don't actually try to get 80%. In other words, the student doesn't try to answer 8 out of 10 questions correctly. If they think they answered the last eight questions right, they don't intentionally try to get the next two questions wrong. No, they try to answer every question correctly. They are aiming for 100% right responses, but grace themselves (hopefully), knowing they will likely not reach that goal overall.

Perfection, wrapped in grace, is always the best goal.

Even in our contemporary times with roughly half of all marriages ending in divorce, no couple goes into a marriage with the goal to make it halfway. No couple believes that the ideal is to be married for a while and then quit - that's called "dating" and they were already doing that, so why get married? Every couple goes into marriage believing they will beat the odds and stay married "'til death do us part". Yet, if their marriage fails, one hopes they will have grace for their partner and for themselves.

Perfection, wrapped in grace, is always the best goal.

In life, we don't aim to be 80% good friends, 80% good spouses, 80% good parents, or 80% good disciples of Jesus. We aim for perfection, wrapped in grace. And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shows us what this looks like.

The commands to avoid anger, lust, and divorce are wrapped up in the grace of the Beatitudes (Blessed are the poor in spirit, the merciful who need mercy, and those who hunger and thirst for their own righteousness, etc). If these teachings to shun all anger, lust, and other relational sins don't help us see our own poverty of spirit, what will?

Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will call all his disciples "evil" by comparison to God (Matthew 7:11), so he is under no delusion that our moral perfection is easily within our grasp. Perfection is our goal, but this side of heaven we will need mountains of mercy to take care of the glaring gap.

Remember that when Luke records the same "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect" line, Luke writes instead "Be merciful, as your Father is merciful" (compare Matthew 5:48 with Luke 6:36). Matthew and Luke both record the same teaching but with different emphases. We don't know Jesus' precise Aramaic words that Matthew and Luke translate into their Greek texts differently, but being perfect in mercy if not perfect in morality seems to be the overall theme that fits best with the Sermon on the Mount and the ministry of Jesus.

In the teaching of Jesus, moral perfection is expressed through mercy perfection.

There is a kind of therapy for people who struggle with dysfunctional behaviours and dysfunctional emotions called DBT - Dialectical Behaviour Therapy. In short, "dialectical" means opposites, and DBT aims to help us do two apparently opposite things at once: change unhealthy behaviors while we simultaneously accept our emotions, failures, and struggles the way we experience them. Change what needs to be changed while accepting things the way they are. Change plus acceptance. This reminds me of the way of Jesus: a high standard and high calling for change, partnered with truck loads of grace.

"In the garden of grace, even broken trees bear fruit." ~ Rick Warren (Journal)

Bottom line for me: if Jesus' teaching seems hard, harsh, and heavy - if his "yoke" feels unkind and impossible - then we must be reading it out of context. For the context of everything Jesus teaches must always include the Beatitudes, the Gospel, the Cross, and Jesus' own promise:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is kind and my burden is light. ~ JESUS (Matthew 11:28-30)


(One last thought)

We end with this reminder of the context of grace while approaching the topics of sexual sin, divorce, and remarriage. In the words of one Bible Commentary:

"Faith communities defined by the redemptive, covenant forming work of Jesus must show grace and mercy not only to the outsiders but to the insiders as well who have lost their way. If the church cannot even accept their own, at times, how will it ever accept the sinner and tax collector from the outside." ~ Robert S. Snow and Arseny Ermakov (Matthew)

It will always be tempting for Christians to try to look wise in the eyes of the world by being champions for justice over mercy and law over love. But Jesus' way of grace is so radical, it will always be counter-cultural. Are we ready to swim upstream?


(Scripture passages that relate to and deepen our understanding of this topic)

Genesis 1:26-28; 2:23-25; Malachi 2:10-16; Matthew 19:1-12; Romans 7:1-13; Galatians 3:23-25; Ephesians 5:21-33


(Talk together, learn together, grow together)

  1. What is God revealing to you about himself through this passage?

  2. What is God showing you about yourself through this passage?

  3. How have you experienced the will and way of Jesus as "restful", "kind" (sometimes translated "easy"), and "light" to carry?

  4. What is one thing you can think, believe, or do differently in light of what you are learning?

  5. What questions are you still processing about this topic?

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page