We are in Matthew 5 where Jesus is teaching about the different ways that we relax God’s commands. The religious leaders in Jesus’ day were lowering God’s high standard to make it look like they were righteous. This is why Jesus declares the need for our righteousness to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. They had the look of piety and righteousness, but actually they had lowered the standard. Jesus addresses two more areas where we want to lower God’s standard for life in Matthew 5:31-37. So let us look at what Jesus says to challenge our lives to see the true standard God has for each of us.
Divorce (Matthew 5:31-32)
Jesus quotes what the religious leaders were teaching in verse 31. “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce” (CSB). This sounds like a quotation from Deuteronomy 24 where Moses instructs to give a woman a certificate of divorce. But the way the leaders took this scripture was to mean that you could divorce your spouse for any reason. This is seen in Matthew 19:3 where their teaching is revealed from their own mouths. They ask Jesus if it is lawful to divorce for any reason. This was the mainstream and popular teaching of the day. They were teaching that you just needed to go through the proper legal channels and give a certificate of divorce. It does not take but a moment to realize that this is true today. This is certainly true in our culture as our culture has gone to war on marriage and its definition over the past 20 years. But this is also seen in our religious world today. Most churches will say that you can divorce for any reason. They may say that you should not divorce. But if you do divorce for any reason, while you should not have done so, it is acceptable to God. But notice in verse 32 what Jesus says is God’s standard.
But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32 CSB)
Notice that Jesus says you cannot divorce for any reason. You can only divorce for one reason: sexual immorality. Now what is God doing by giving us this command? What does it matter if we divorce? We can certainly see the damage that has been created in our society by the rampant divorce. The negative impact on the family has been staggering over the last 40 years. But I want you to notice what Jesus says is the reason. Jesus says that adultery is being committed. The right presumption is that when someone is divorced they are going to get remarried. Therefore, divorcing and then remarrying is a sinful situation that Jesus calls adultery. Jesus says the only situation where a divorce and remarriage does not bring a person into adultery is in the case of sexual immorality.
This tells us a lot about God’s high standard. Marriage is intended to be for life. Marriage is a permanent commitment. Marriage is a covenant. Please think about the words that are said in any marriage ceremony. A marriage ceremony does not say that we promise to stay together until we are unhappy, do not like the person any more, realize that the other person is not what we bargained for, does not do what we like, or any other condition for marriage. What we hear at every marriage ceremony is that we will not part from each other until death. No one finds it romantic to proclaim a vow to stay together until things we do not want to be with the person anymore. No Disney movie ends this way. No, we want that they lived together happily ever after. We do not want the movie to end that they were together until the next problem came up.
Jesus’ message is simple. Do not divorce. Work it out. Remember what we studied in the last paragraph last week. If someone has something against you, you need to go to that person and be reconciled. Jesus is showing us that marriage is not excluded from this command. We are to be peacemakers in our marriages. We are to look for solutions. Here is one important solution that I constantly give in counseling. Go back to doing for each other what you were doing when you were dating and first married. Go back to the things that caused love to flourish in the relationship and focus on those things again. Do not look to end the marriage. Look to fix the marriage. This teaching fits with what Jesus is going to teach next.
Keep Your Word (Matthew 5:33-37)
Again, we read what the religious leaders were teaching in verse 33. But as we continue to read what Jesus says, we get the sense of what was being taught. The teaching was that you must keep your oaths that you make to the Lord. But this was a loophole. This meant that if you made any other oath or promise and did not make that oath before the Lord, then you could break your oath. We have seen a similar idea in our culture. People will swear on their mother’s grave and then break their word because their mother is not dead. People will make an oath but because they did not put their hand on a Bible, they believe it is okay to break your word. You might have even done this when you were a kid: you crossed your fingers behind your back when you made a promise to do something. Then you did not do what you said because “my fingers were crossed.” We like to come up with ways to get out of keeping our promises and keeping our word. So notice what Jesus says in verses 34-37.
Jesus first tells them to stop making oaths. Stop making oaths by heaven, earth, Jerusalem, or your head. Now it is important not to misread what Jesus is saying. Sometimes people will look at this scripture and think that Jesus is instructing for us not to make oaths. But remember that God gave instructions for the people of Israel to give oaths and how to fulfill them (Exodus 22:11; Numbers 5:19-21; 30:2). God even instructed his people to give oaths and to accept oaths. The apostle Paul took oaths for his audience (Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23). God himself made an oath and swore by himself because there was no one higher than himself (Hebrews 7:20-22,28).
So we must not miss the point Jesus is making. The first point is to not make oaths by other things thinking that this is going to allow you a way to get out of what you are promising. We cannot cross our fingers and think that this allows us to get out of keeping the promises that we make. Making an oath of any kind is a binding oath. Do not think that making an oath by other things somehow alleviates the responsibility of your words. Your words are still before God. Heaven is God’s throne. Earth is God’s footstool. Jerusalem is God’s city. Your head is owned by God and you do not even have the power to control its color. The oath is not the problem. The problem is making an oath with the intent to not carry out what you said. Oaths are to encourage truthfulness, not deception.
But Jesus’ second point pushes us back to the standard that God originally set. Whatever you say, that is what you must do. This is what Jesus means in verse 37 when he says that all you need to say is yes or no. Your yes must mean yes. Your no must mean no. Here is the standard: if you say it, keep it. Do not play games with your words. Do not try to loophole your words.
So what you say at work is what you must mean and do. What you say to your neighbors is what you must mean and do. What you say to your family is what you must mean and do. What you say to each other, your brothers and sisters in Christ, you must mean and do. Do not say it if you do not mean it. Do not say it if you are not going to do exactly what you are about to say.
Now think about how this connects so well with the last section. You said words to your spouse at marriage. You said words to your spouse and you are to keep those words. There is nothing about if someone is not holding up their end of the bargain. You said words and you are to keep those words. Whatever promises you made when you were dating, when you got married, and after marriage, you must keep those words. This is what the people of God do. The people of God do what they say. Time does not change what you said you would do.
As the people of God we should know this truth and the importance of this truth. God made promises toward us. Those promises are so dependable that even when we act faithless, God remains faithful. Those promises hold true even if we are not doing what we ought to be doing. God keeps his word. God does what he says. We must follow that example.
Getting Righteousness Right
So if we are going to get righteousness right, then we need to follow through on what you say. But let us not forget what Jesus is doing in this section. Jesus is wanting to convict our hearts. Those who belong to the kingdom of God are people who keep their words. How many times have you not kept your word? How many times have you said something but did not follow through? How many times have you made a promise you did not keep? No one can stand before God and say that they have always done what they have said. Marriage is a great example of our failure. We said we would love our spouse unconditionally. But how many times have we put conditions on our love? How many times have we said things to our family that we have failed to do? How many times have we failed to carry out things that we have said to each other?
Getting righteousness right means that we will broken in our spirit and sorrowful over the fact that we have broken our word so many times. How many times does God need to forgive us for being unfaithful in our words? Keep your word. Do what you say. God expects nothing less from us. If you need help navigating what to do because you have not kept your word, please talk to us. We know that what we do in marriage is complicated. Jesus’ message is easy. Do not divorce. Keep your word. If you divorce and remarry, you are committing adultery. We are here to help you navigate how to go forward with your situation. Please talk to us about how we can help you move forward in getting righteousness right.