Jesus on Marriage
Passage: Luke 16:18–16:18
Jesus on Marriage
Please take your Bibles and turn with me to Luke 16. This morning, we are going to look at one verse – v18 – and our aim is to reflect biblically on the importance of marriage as ordained by God. For context’s sake, we’re going to begin reading in v14, and I’ll explain why in the course of the sermon. So, if you would, please follow along with me as we read vv14-18 in Luke 16. This is what the Holy Spirit says to the church.
Brothers and Sisters, this is the Word of the Lord, given to us for our good. May God bless the reading and preaching of his Word. Let’s pray together.
Historically, the Church has taught that God ordained three foundational institutions for human life and flourishing. The first institution is the family – that principal set of relationships that gives definition to all human life. The second institution is civil government – the collection of humanity authority that is exercised for the suppression of evil, the protection of life, and the promotion of what is good. The third institution is the church – the body of Christ composed of all believers down through the ages. The family, civil government, and the church – these are the foundational institutions for human life and flourishing.
Two of these institutions have their origins in the all-important biblical concept of covenant. The family and the church are both founded through and upon a covenant. The church, for example, is the product of the Triune God’s covenant of grace. In eternity past, God the Father determined to save a people for himself, God the Son joined with the Father to accomplish this determination, and God the Spirit applies this redeeming covenant to all whom the Father has given to the Son. The church is founded upon a covenant.
The family likewise is founded upon a covenant – the covenant of marriage. Marriage itself is God’s creation, as it was God who joined Adam and Eve together in the first family. To state the obvious, every person since Adam has parents whose relationship is the source of his or her life, so that family, as a God-ordained institution, is the bedrock for the continuation of life. Family is founded upon covenant.
Now, if you know the Scriptures, then you know that a covenant is a solemn agreement. In God’s economy, covenants are not to be taken lightly. A covenant is not a glorified contract. Rather, a covenant has a note of solemnity – a recognition that one is acting not just for his own interest, but for the interest of others and, most importantly, before the face of God. This is why the Bible speaks with such weight on these matters. This is why, for example, Jesus demands that his church be shepherded with his Word, through the ministry of qualified pastors, and nourished through the regular practice of his ordinances. The covenantal nature of the church means what we do this morning is joyfully solemn.
And the same is true for the family, friends. The covenantal nature of marriage helps explain why the Bible speaks so seriously and clearly on the importance of this institution. And our passage today is one such example of the Bible’s teaching. Of all the things we might say about this text, we ought to begin with this – v18 reminds us that God cares deeply about this institution that he has founded. God cares about marriage and family.
But before we go too far in studying this passage, we ought to pause here and establish a few points that should guide our discussion. We cannot engage in a full theology of marriage and family this morning, but there are a few points that we absolutely must bear in mind before we go any further.
First of all, as biblical Christians, we will be counter-cultural in our views on marriage and family. Marriage is a covenant relationship between a man and a woman, and that statement alone is increasingly unique in our day. What’s more, marriage is the only context for God-honoring sexual expression between a husband and wife. Again, we’re counter-cultural to an incredible degree. What’s more, marriage is governed by God’s Word, not the dictates of the civil government. So, right from the start, we all feel the counter-cultural nature of our text. And brothers and sisters, I’m going to make the case today that this is a good and glorious thing. We will be counter-cultural.
The second point we ought to be clear on is that marriage is not ultimate. Yes, Jesus speaks with solemnity in this text, but marriage itself is not ultimate. To state in plainly, there are many in Christ’s church who will not enter marriage but whose lives will make significant impact for the kingdom of God. We ought to serve and honor those brothers and sisters. What’s more, marriage itself will one-day cease. As hard as it is for me to imagine, there will come a day when my precious bride will see Christ as he is, and in seeing him, she will not see me as we are now. And on that glorious day, my bond with her will be finished, and my joy will be complete in Christ just as hers will be complete in Christ. So, marriage, though solemn in God’s eyes, is not ultimate.
Third, we ought to be clear that marriage takes place under the shadow of the fall. Marriage, for all its glory, is affected by sin. Many of us know this from our own experience, whether it be broken marriages that we grew up in, or broken marriages we experience ourselves. Many more of us can relate to the everyday heartache that occurs when one sinner marries another sinner.
In fact, I don’t want to assume anything this morning, so I’ll just state this plainly. If your marriage is struggling or if it is a source of difficulty, please come and talk to someone. If you are hurting or potentially facing harm, please talk to someone, so that we can help you. Listen to me: Having a godly marriage does not mean ignoring problems, putting on a brave face, or excusing sin. So, if you are hurting or struggling or afraid, please don’t stay in the dark. Please come and talk to someone. As pastors and members of this church, we are committed to caring for you, as best we can.
So, we know that marriage takes place under the shadow of the fall. And we hear that reality very clearly in this text, as Jesus teaches how we ought to think about divorce.
And for that reason, brothers and sisters, the last thing we ought to be clear on as we start is our need for the gospel. Again, please hear me. No one is saved by being married. You are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. No one is saved by having a good marriage. You are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. And perhaps most needed of all – no one is condemned by failing in marriage. It is the gospel that determines your standing before God, not your track record in marriage.
So, whether you are single or married, whether you have been divorced or not, whether your marriage is flourishing or struggling, I pray that you will hear this sermon not through the filter of your performance, but through the glorious reality of the gospel.
Now, let’s turn our attention to studying this text. As you heard in our reading, Jesus speaks quite plainly in this passage on divorce and remarriage. My plan is to understand Jesus’ teaching by answering two questions. First will be the question of context – Why is this verse here, at this point in Luke’s Gospel? And second will be the question of content– What does Jesus mean with his prohibition of divorce? So, two questions that I pray will help us understand and apply Jesus’ teaching.
Question of Context
First, then, we have to deal with the context. Why is this verse here, at this point in Luke’s Gospel? Upon first reading, v18 might seem out of place. Chapter 16 begins with a parable on kingdom stewardship, and it ends with another parable on need to be vigilant that our possessions not dull us to the Word of God. And then here in the middle is v18, where Jesus appears to throw in this statement on divorce. So, why is this verse here?
Well, friends, remember what we studied last week in vv14-17. Remember how Jesus asserted his authority in God’s kingdom, and remember how Jesus focused not on outward performance but on the reality of the heart. Those two principles – the authority of Jesus and the centrality of the heart – explain why v18 is here in this chapter.
In God’s kingdom, Jesus is the one who speaks with divine authority, and his authority reaches all the way to the most intimate of human relationships – the relationship of marriage. To follow Jesus, then, even your marriage must be oriented toward his Word, for Jesus is the authority in God’s kingdom. Do you see the connection? This prohibition on divorce is the most pressing expression of Jesus’ claim to authority. To be his disciple means you submit even your most intimate relationship to him.
At the same time, v18 is also an illustration of Jesus’ focus on the heart. In Jesus’ day, v18 was a powerful example of how his standard actually exceeded that of the Pharisees. Let me explain what I mean.
In the Judaism of Jesus’ day, there was a strand of teaching that allowed a man to divorce his wife for just about any perceived offence. In fact, one famous example allowed a man to divorce his wife if she overcooked dinner. That’s not exactly a recipe for marital harmony, and neither was it in step with the spirit of God’s Word.
But here’s where it got worse, friends. To accomplish such a divorce, all the man had to do was write a certificate and present it to his wife. Notice how that ignores the reality of the heart. To be technically legal, all you had to do was this mere outward action, and all the while, your heart could be easily hidden.
So, by including this strong prohibition in v18, Jesus is showing again how mere outward performance just won’t do. In God’s economy, you cannot simply write things off and use a legal technicality as cover. Instead, Jesus is pressing his disciples to remember that God knows their hearts. And since God’s intention from the beginning was for marriage to be a lifelong union, no amount of legal wrangling or rabbinic technicalities can get you off the hook. If your aim is to please God, then your faithful obedience needs to be offered from the heart.
Friends, that is why this verse appears at this point in Luke’s Gospel. It showcases Jesus’ authority – how his Word extends down to the most intimate of human relationships. And it presses disciples to see, once again, that God knows our hearts. To please God, we cannot settle for mere outward performance and clever legal technicalities.
So, before we go on, I want to press something home to you. When it comes to marriage, we know that the most important biblical command is you shall not commit adultery. Correct? That’s as serious a violation of the marriage covenant as you can get. But on this serious violation, I wonder if we are sometimes more like the Pharisees that we care to admit. That is, we technically do not commit adultery in the physical sense – we avoid that physical act of sin. But how many of us, at times, harbor adultery of the heart? Remember Jesus said simply to look at a woman lustfully is to commit adultery in your heart. How many of us tolerate being less than faithful at heart?
So, I want to make you uncomfortable for a moment. Are you heart-level faithful to your spouse? Do you strive with all your might to set before eyes no vile thing, as David said in Psalm 103? Do you secretly wish that your spouse was different? Do you indulge in thinking what it would be like to be married to someone else? Are you heart-level faithful to your spouse? Friends, that is one application from Jesus’ teaching in v18. It’s one thing to say that you technically have remained faithful by avoiding an adulterous relationship. That’s no small thing, mind you, but we shouldn’t stop there. Are you heart-level faithful? Let’s examine our hearts, brothers and sisters, and where necessary, let’s bring things into the light of the gospel.
Question of Content
We come now to the second question of our study, the question of content. What does Jesus mean with his prohibition of divorce? From the start, we ought to assert that this is a prohibition from Jesus. He speaks very forcefully that one is not to illegitimately divorce his or her spouse and marry another person. To do so, Jesus says, would be tantamount to adultery. It is a very strong prohibition from the Lord.
The reason for this strong prohibition is two-fold. One is what we considered just a moment ago – the authority of Jesus. The strong prohibition demonstrates the authority of Jesus’ word and his place of lordship in the kingdom of God. He speaks authoritatively because he is the authority.
The second reason has to do with the purpose of God for marriage. In God’s design, marriage is a lifelong covenant commitment between a man and a woman. Divorce grieves God’s heart and goes against his expressed will for the institution. And so, we ought to affirm what this prohibition means – that God intends for marriage to be lifelong.
As we think about this strong prohibition from Jesus, we have to ask ourselves, “Are there any other passage in Scripture that also speak to this issue?” And the answer, friends, is yes. In Matthew’s Gospel, there is a parallel passage to this one, and in Matthew’s parallel, Jesus adds an important qualification. Listen to Jesus as Matthew records him. Matthew ch5 v32 – “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.” Now, you heard the qualification in that verse, what is sometimes called the exception clause. In Matthew, Jesus prohibits divorce except for instances of sexual immorality. What does that mean?
Some scholars hold that sexual immorality refers only to sinful sexual activity during the courtship or engagement period of a relationship. In this view, divorce would only be allowed if one partner was unfaithful during the engagement. I don’t hold to that view because it’s too restrictive on the word for sexual immorality. In other NT instances, the word refers to any sexual activity that happens anytime outside of marriage.
For that reason, I hold that Scripture allows for divorce in instances of adultery within the marriage covenant. In such an instance, the spouse who was sinned against is allowed to seek a divorce and also free to re-marry in the Lord. If divorce is sanctioned in such an instance, then remarriage, by implication, is allowed as well. There is another passage, 1 Corinthians 7, that may also allow for divorce in instances of desertion by an unbelieving spouse. In such an instance, the believing spouse, I take it, would be free to remarry in the Lord. But an in-depth study of 1 Corinthians 7 is beyond our scope this morning. For our purposes today, we ought to see that the Lord Jesus prohibits divorce except for instances of marital unfaithfulness.
Now, there is an important clarification to add at this point. Divorce is not required in instances of adultery. This is important, brothers and sisters. Remember, God’s intention for marriage is lifelong, so even in that painful moment of adultery, God’s heart would be for reconciliation, and God’s church ought to advocate for and pursue reconciliation to the very end. That reconciliation might take a very long time, and it might require a period of separation for counseling and the rebuilding of trust. But in the end, this is the heart of God, as evidenced in Jesus’ strong teaching on divorce. God’s heart is for marriage as a lifelong commitment.
If you are familiar with this issue, then you know that Christians, at times, disagree on how to interpret Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage. Some maintain that divorce and remarriage are never allowed in Scripture, though there may be separation that lasts a lifetime. In other words, some Christians interpret Matthew’s exception in light of Luke’s non-exception. I don’t hold that view, but I respect those who do. The view I am teaching this morning and the view that I follow in pastoring God’s people is that divorce and remarriage are permitted in instances of adultery and desertion by an unbelieving spouse.
Now, I could spend a lot of time right now working through all the differences in interpretation. That would not be an unfruitful exercise. And I am happy to have any follow-up with you on the details of this particular issue. But what I’d like to do at this point is pause and make an observation that I contend is more pressing that working through all the interpretive options. The observation is this – regardless of your view on this particular verse, what should get your attention is how much higher the Bible’s standards are than the world’s when it comes to divorce and remarriage. Whatever your view on Luke 16, we would agree that the Bible has no category for no fault divorce as is practiced in our country. If you’re looking for a jumpstart to the sexual revolution, look no further than California 1970, when then Governor Ronald Regan signed the nation’s first no fault divorce law. The Bible has no category for such a practice. The Bible has no category for divorce due to irreconcilable differences. The Bible has no category for divorce because you fell out of love with your spouse. Under no circumstances would those worldly approaches to marriage be authorized by Scripture. So, regardless of your view on Luke 16 and Matthew 5, all Christians ought to agree that the vast majority of divorces in our culture fall outside the Bible’s teaching.
And therefore, brothers and sisters, we ought to embrace the biblical view of marriage as perhaps the most counter-cultural witness the church has in our world today. When we devote ourselves to upholding God’s standard for marriage, regardless of the cost, we are potentially, under God’s providence, opening the door for the gospel in ways that would not have been open to us before.
For example, consider the testimony of a tested and tried marriage. We’ve already noted that every marriage takes place in the shadow of the fall, so Christian and non-Christian alike know how hard marriage can be. So, consider the testimony of a husband and wife who stick together and work things out when the relationship is rocky. That kind of marriage has been tested and tried. When others see that marriage, there is a fragrance of genuineness that, by God’s grace, can open doors for the gospel. In fact, I would say that more than a marriage that appear pristine and easy, marriages that are tested and tried become powerful signposts pointing people to the grace of God. Imagine the conversation. The unbelieving co-worker asks, “Why have you stuck it out all these years? It sounds pretty rough.” And the Christian says, “It’s because there is a Savior who sticks it out for me.” And right then, in an everyday conversation about the difficulty of sticking with your marriage, the door is opened for the gospel.
In other words, to be a gospel-centered church means we strive and labor and fight to never give up on any marriage relationship. To be a gospel-centered Christian means you press hard after the health of not only your marriage, if you are married, but also the marriages of your brothers and sisters. Tested and tried marriages are uniquely beautiful pictures of the gospel. Let me say that again. Tested and tried marriages are uniquely beautiful pictures of the gospel.
For what do we celebrate in the gospel? That Jesus Christ will never leave or forsake his bride – that even when his church is wayward and broken, Christ pursues us, like the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the one lost sheep. Brothers and Sisters, that is the heart of the Lord Jesus, and that beautiful heart is pictured so wonderfully in tested and tried marriages, where love transcends feelings, and where covenant triumphs over convenience.
So, let this be the day, brothers and sisters, where we steel our hearts to build our homes and this church on this commitment – that we will not give up on marriage; that we will not shy away from our counter-cultural status but rather embrace it, with all joy, as a platform for the gospel; and that we will serve one another through encouragement and admonishment to set our sights on God’s design – lifelong, Christ-exalting, faithful commitment in marriage.
Friends, I want to close this morning with the gospel. I hope that the application on that last point was encouraging to you. I used the verb steel, in the sense of imparting resolve and determination. I pray God’s Word would have that effect – to steel our hearts for the days ahead. But as we close, I want to return to the gospel. Here’s the reality – all of us have fallen short of God’s standard for marriage. We have all room to grow in grace. Some of us may be keenly aware right now of the ways in which we have not carried out God’s commands for husbands and wives. Husbands, you may not have been living with your wife in an understanding way. You may not be leading her as you ought. Wives, you may not be demonstrating a submissive spirit to your husband, or showing the kind of respect that God calls you to display. Still others may have fallen short of God’s standard in terms of commitment. You may have a divorce in your background that you now believe goes against the Scriptures.
Whatever the case, brothers and sisters, I want to close with what I said at the outset. It’s what I aim to say to your every Sunday. The gospel is our only hope before the Living God. And what’s more, the gospel is enough for each and every sin, each and every failure that we commit in this life. The gospel is enough even for broken marriages and failed commitments. Do you believe that this morning? Wherever you are today – whether married or single, whether your marriage is thriving and faltering, whether your past is bright or painful – wherever you are today, the gospel is enough.
So, simply because we are prone to wander, and simply because we are likely to forget, let me close with a few precious gospel truths:
- “If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,” 1 John 1.9. Whatever your past, there is complete forgiveness for you in Christ.
- “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone; behold, the new has come,” 2 Corinthians 5.17. You are defined neither by your successes nor by your failures. Your identify is in Christ, so live today, wherever you are, with the full assurance of your standing in the Lord Jesus.
- “I am sure of this: that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus,” Philippians 1.6. Your future does not rest on what you do right, and your future is not derailed by what you have done wrong. Your future is secure in the preserving grace of God. Receive that grace today, and strive for that which pleases him.
May God show us grace, brothers and sisters, and may our homes demonstrate the unspeakable beauty of the good news – that Christ Jesus loves his bride, the church, and gave himself up for her. Amen, let’s pray.