Is marriage becoming obsolete or is it one of the most critical foundations of human existence? Author Gary Thomas shares something of the domestic side of Abraham Lincoln in his book, Sacred Marriage.
…Mary Todd was hardly the type of woman with whom one could enjoy a quiet evening. She was, in fact a woman of intense impulses and tremendous temper, though this, ironically enough, was some of her attraction for the future president.[Later] when a salesman called on the White House and was treated to Mary’s fervid verbal assault, he marched right up to the Oval Office … and proceeded to complain to President Lincoln about how the first lady had treated him. Lincoln listened calmly, then stood and gently said, ‘You can endure for fifteen minutes what I have endured for fifteen years.”
…Shortly before Lincoln left for Gettysburg, his son Tad became ill, and this once again intensified Mary’s hysterics, as she was newly reminded of the son she had lost less than two years earlier. With all the distractions at home, Lincoln was able to merely scribble out a few notes as he left for Pennsylvania.
In this highly emotional moment, Lincoln could be forgiven for delivering his words with less-than-powerful rhetoric. …The applause was scattered and restrained, so much so that Lincoln believed he had failed miserably.
…but the newspapers printed them, the nation was inspired. The Gettysburg address is one of the most famous speeches ever delivered on American soil.
He shone brightest when his personal life was darkest. The connection one can make between Lincoln’s marriage and his mission is not difficult. It is easy to see how a man who might quit on a difficult marriage would not have the character to hold together a crumbling nation.[i]
Timothy Keller in his book, ‘The Meaning of Marriage,’ points out that:
…historically marriage was deemed as both good and desirable. Studies continue to support this premise, but surveys of High School Students show a negative attitude toward marriage. He raises the question, ‘So where did this pessimism come from and why is it so out of touch with reality?’ Paradoxically, it may be that the pessimism comes from a new kind of unrealistic idealism about marriage, born of a significant shift in our culture’s understanding of the purpose of marriage.[ii]
Legal scholar John Witte Jr. relates:
Earlier the ideal of marriage as a permanent contractual union designed for the sake of mutual love, procreation and protection is slowly giving way to a new reality of marriage as a ‘terminal sexual contract’ designed for the gratification of the individual parties. Witte goes on to say, that [formerly] it was a solemn bond, designed to help each party subordinate individual impulses and interests in favor of the relationship… given by God not merely to Christians but to benefit the entirety of humanity. Marriage created character by bringing male and female into a binding partnership. In particular, lifelong marriage was seen as creating the only kind of social stability in which children could grow and thrive.
He explains that a new view of marriage emerged from the eighteenth and nineteenth century Enlightenment.
Older cultures taught their members to find meaning in duty, by embracing their assigned social roles and carrying them out faithfully. During the Enlightenment, things began to shift. The meaning of life came to be seen as the fruit of freedom of the individual to choose the life that most fulfills him or her personally. Instead of finding meaning through self-denial, through giving up one’s freedoms and binding oneself to the duties of marriage and family, marriage was redefined as finding emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization.
…In this view, married persons married for themselves, not to fulfill responsibilities to God or society.[iii]
Yet, some of the greatest things are nourished in times of the great testing in life. Struggle, suffering and sorrow often breed wisdom, understanding, patience and growth. Struggle in human relationships transcend time. People have always struggled in their interactions with each other, but it is how we address issues that define who we are as a person.
There are always things we discover about Jesus as we study the Scriptures. We see the incredible moral courage that Jesus demonstrated particularly in the last year of his life. His earthly life was filled with death threats, people trying to entrap him. One such passage is found in Matthew 19 when he was asked the grounds upon which a man could divorce his wife.
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.[iv]
The Pharisees were trying to pressure or entrap Jesus, as Matthew tells us. What is interesting is that Jesus had now entered into the region where Herod Antipas was ruling.
When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan.[v]
It was this Herod that had John the Baptist beheaded because he had confronted Herod with the fact that he had taken his brother Philip’s wife. If Jesus responded in the way the Pharisees thought he might, he could alienate Herod and his life would be in danger, or at the very least douse the enthusiasm of his followers. Jesus’ response to the challenging question the Pharisees, and later his own disciples queried, gives us clarity as it relates to God’s purpose and challenges pertaining to both marriage and the single life. There are three insights in Jesus’ response as it pertains to being or not to being married. It has everything to do with how God has gifted us.
THE FIRST INSIGHT WE DISCOVER PERTAINING TO BEING OR NOT BEING MARRIED IS GOD’S INTENTION REGARDING THE NATURE OF MARRIAGE
In answering the question that is posed to Him, Jesus addresses a fundamental issue regarding marriage. What is God’s purpose or intention in marriage?
‘Haven’t you read,’ he replied, ‘that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and he 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.[vi]
A. The question posed by the Pharisees was simply, can a man divorce his wife for any reason?
A little understanding of the Jewish culture is needed here to grasp what they were asking.
It was accepted throughout Judaism that a man had the right to divorce his wife, though a woman had no such right to divorce her husband. In some circumstances she could petition the court, and the court might direct her husband to divorce her, but even then, the actual divorcing was done by the husband.[vii]
In Mark’s gospel, we have this statement regarding this address by Jesus on marriage and divorce. He closes his remarks by stating what happens if a woman divorces her husband.
and if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.[viii]
We must remember that Mark was writing primarily to a Gentile audience and that women did initiate divorce in the greater culture of both Greeks and Romans. However in the Jewish culture with divorce being something which could be easily obtained by the man, you would think that divorce would be prevalent in Jewish society, but that wasn’t the case. Israel Abrahams writes in his book, ‘Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels,
…most Jews married young and ‘Jewish sentiment was strongly opposed to the divorce of the wife of a man’s youth.’ In the Talmud it reads, ‘If a man divorces his first wife, even the altar sheds tears.’[ix]
In Jesus’ day there was a controversy raging and there were different viewpoints as to what grounds a man could divorce his wife.
B. Jesus’ response addresses the biblical understanding of marriage.
Jesus points his hearers back to the very God ordained purpose behind marriage. Right from the creation of humanity, we discover that it was God that instituted marriage between a man and a woman. It was God that created gender. It was God that related the reason for a man to leave his primary relationship with his family of origin and be united to his wife. Marriage is defined as a special union between a man and a woman, where they become one flesh.
C. The man and the woman are joined together.
To be joined together [kollethesetai] is the idea of beginning an association with someone. Jesus in Matthew 19:6 in explaining the relationship of marriage speaks of being joined together, and this joining together is done by God, and therefore should not be dissolved by human intention. It literally means to be bound closely together, glued, united, to be joined together are all expressions that summarize this term. It does not just speak of the marriage union, but also speaks of other close associations. It can speak of our being joined to the Lord (1 Cor. 6:17). It can speak of being joined to the Christian community (Acts 5:13 and 9:26).
D. What does it mean to become ‘one flesh?’
Flesh [sarx], speaks of the material that covers animals and humans (cf. I Cor. 15:39). In Matthew 19:5 it speaks of a married couple becoming one flesh. However, this concept of the flesh is different in the gospels than in the writings of the apostle Paul who sees in the human flesh a capacity for sin (cf. Ro. 7:18, Ga. 5:19-21), whereas the Old Testament sees no connection between flesh as a substance and sin. Though sarx is used over 150 times in the bible (145 times in the Septuagint), it’s usage in the synoptic gospels apart from parallel passages is limited. It was used only three times. The passage from Matthew is actually a quote from the Old Testament. Therefore, the meaning of the word here in Matthew 19:5 should reflect an understanding of the meaning of the word for flesh in the Old Testament. Flesh in the Old Testament primarily meant the physical body. Flesh also meant those who were blood relations (cf. Gen. 2:23, 29:14, Judges. 9:2). The latter seems to be the determinative factor in understanding the nature of marriage. In marriage the two now become related and are considered one. There is a unique unity of relationship. By speaking to the issue in the way that Jesus did, he was pointing out that the current debate in his day was losing sight of God’s intention. It is not about divorce, but rather about marriage. It is God’s intention that marriage would be a permanent relationship but as we know, God’s intentions are not always what occur in the human family. The problem with deviating from God’s purposes is that pain, suffering and sorrow that follows.
THE SECOND INSIGHT WE DISCOVER PERTAINING TO BEING OR NOT BEING MARRIED IS THE CONCESSION THAT IS MADE BECAUSE OF THE INDIFFERENCE OF PEOPLE
We live in an imperfect world, where sin has marred our lives and affected our hearts in such a way that God’s intentions and ideals are often ignored. When people allow sin to harden their hearts either through being hurt by others, or indifference to the needs of others, relationships break down. The Pharisees in asking the question did not anticipate Jesus’ response and therefore they point out to Jesus that divorce certainly was acceptable as quoted in the Old Testament.
If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…[x]
In the Pharisees’ minds, divorce was not the issue, it was the grounds of divorce that were being debated. The dispute was over the term ‘he finds something indecent about her…’ However, Jesus in stating his position on marriage, did not address the issue in the minds of the Pharisees.
‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’[xi]
Jesus now responds to the reason that Moses included this concession in the law.
Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.[xii]
In other words, that was never God’s original intent. Divorce was a concession because of the sinful condition of humanity.
A. What does it mean to be hard hearted?
The Greek word for hard hearted was an idiom, which means to be ‘uncircumcised in heart and ears’): pertaining to being obdurate and obstinate—‘stubborn, completely unyielding.’
In other words it could be translated Moses gave you permission to divorce your wives because you were so obstinate.’ In the contexts illustrated by sklerotraxelos and sklerokardia, the focus of the stubbornness and obstinacy is the unwillingness to be taught or to understand.[xiii]
Jesus is saying that the problem in relationships is within us and our attitudes toward each other. We all understand it: when we are hurting, we often protect ourselves by building walls to shield us from the pain, but the problem with that approach is that we become indifferent and insensitive toward others. The wall that shields us from others means that we are unable to reach out to others. We become hardened.
So what should we do? This is where forgiveness comes into play. It is interesting that this text regarding marriage and divorce follows Matthew 18’s comments on forgiveness, and the need to continually forgive. When we learn to be forbearing and forgiving something happens to us. We become more patient and understanding. Marriage has a way of exposing who we really are, when it becomes challenging or worse, boring, or when things don’t go our way, or we have to keep doing the right thing when there may be little or no encouragement, it’s a commentary on our character.
Oh, I know that there are those who are divorced who didn’t want that to happen. It wasn’t their choice; it was decided by the other person. I realize that it takes two to make a marriage relationship work, but we need to realize that divorce is not the answer that our culture thinks it is. Studies have found that people are just as unhappy after leaving a bad marriage as they were while they were in it. Jesus points out that only sexual immorality destroys the one flesh concept.
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.[xiv]
Francis De Sales, a seventeenth century spiritual director once wrote to a young woman torn between her desire to be holy and to be married. The church often encouraged celibacy as an expression of a devoted life. De Sales put the troubled young woman at ease, telling her that, far from being a compromise, in one sense, marriage might be the toughest ministry she could ever undertake. …The state of marriage is one that requires more virtue and constancy than any other, he wrote. It is a perpetual exercise of mortification…From this thyme plant, in spite of the bitter nature of its juice, you may be able to draw and make the honey of a holy life. To spiritually benefit from marriage, we have to be honest. We have to look at our disappointments, own up to our ugly attitudes, and confront our selfishness. We also have to rid ourselves of the notion that the difficulties of marriage can be overcome if we simply pray harder or learn a few simple principles.[xv]
However, the reason Moses allowed divorce was in one measure to protect women from being victimized.
In Moses’ day divorce evidently did need regulation. It would seem that prior to the regulation in Deuteronomy women were in a more than difficult position. It was possible for a husband to reject his wife and put her out of his house. But if she tried to contract marriage with another man (and there was little future in a patriarchal society for a woman not attached to some man), then a mischievous husband could claim that she was still his wife. Legally there was nothing she could do about it. When Moses took note of the ills that could be done toward women and provided for divorce, he was giving the repudiated wives a little measure of protection.[xvi]
Donald Hagner points out regarding Jesus’ view of marriage.
The implication is that the new era of the present kingdom of God involves a return to the idealism of the pre-fall Genesis account.[xvii]
THE FINAL INSIGHT WE DISCOVER PERTAINING TO BEING OR NOT BEING MARRIED IS THE INSTRUCTION REGARDING THOSE WHO CHOOSE THE SINGLE LIFE FOR GOD’S KINGDOM PURPOSES
The fact that Jesus talked about the permanence of marriage caused the disciples to respond that it may be best not to be married.
The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and a wife, it is better not to marry.’[xviii]
Only here in Matthew’s gospel do we have this little explanation about singleness and the kingdom of God. Jesus goes on to say that though marriage at times can present challenges, being single is not for everyone either. It has its own unique set of challenges.
Jesus replied, ‘Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given’.[xix]
Is Jesus talking about the word regarding marriage or what he is about to say about being single? It seems that this verse should be tied to what he is about to say. Jesus doesn’t dispute the challenges of his standard regarding marriage, but not everybody is able to live a single life as God requires it, which means that we must be sexually abstinent. If we can’t remain so, then it’s better that we marry.
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.
But since there is so much immorality each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.[xx]
Jesus talks about this very aspect in terms of those who are unable to have sexual relations and those who chose to abstain from them for God’s kingdoms sake.
For some are eunuchs because they are born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.[xxi]
What is interesting about this is that eunuchs in the Old Testament for the most part are painted in a poor light. They were kept from the temple and the priesthood. However, the prophet Isaiah spoke of a day when they would no longer be excluded from God’s presence.
For this is what the Lord says: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant – to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.[xxii]
In the mind of the Hebrew people, one’s name was perpetuated through their children that’s one reason why barrenness was considered such a curse, but here the prophet states that these eunuchs would have a name that would not be cut off. They would be considered blessed by God. Here Jesus reveals that this is a possibility in God’s kingdom. Like John the Baptist earlier, and now Jesus himself, they had chosen the single life in order to be free of marriages distraction in order to serve God.
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord.
But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world – how she can please her husband.[xxiii]
So what started as a point of entrapment in order to ensnare Jesus with a controversial topic, becomes a moment of instruction regarding marriage and how a single person can choose that state in order to serve God. What we are hearing from Jesus is that marriage is meant to be a permanent relationship between a man and a woman joined together by God and can be destroyed by human sinfulness. Whenever we choose to do things our way and violate God’s
will there are painful consequences not only for ourselves but also others.
[i] Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan, 2000), 135-137.
[ii] Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, (New York, N.Y.: Dutton, 2011), 26-27.
[iii] John Witte Jr., From Sacrament to Contract, (Louisville, Ky: John Knox Press, 1997), 209 as quoted in Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, 27-28.
[iv] Matthew 19:3, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[v] Matthew 19:1.
[vi] Matthew 19:4-6.
[vii] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 480.
[viii] Mark 10:12.
[ix] Israel Abrahams, ‘Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels,’ as quoted in Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 480.
[x] Deuteronomy 24:1
[xi] Matthew 19:7.
[xii] Matthew 19:8.
[xiii] Louw, J. P., & Nida, E. A. (1996). Vol. 1: Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains (electronic ed. of the 2nd edition.) (763). New York: United Bible Societies.
[xiv] Matthew 19:9.
[xv] Gary Thomas, Sacred Marriage, 13.
[xvi] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 483.
[xvii] Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary, (Dallas, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1995), 549.
[xviii] Matthew 19:10.
[xix] Matthew 19:11.
[xx] 1 Corinthians 7:1-2.
[xxi] Matthew 19:12.
[xxii] Isaiah 56:4-5.
[xxiii] 1 Corinthians 7:32-34.