It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil. —Matthew 5:31-37
Jesus came into this world to create a new community. He called it the kingdom of heaven. He didn’t mean us going to God in heaven above; he meant God coming down to us, bringing heaven down into our lives now.
How do we experience this new community that God is creating? Jesus said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). The people he’s recruiting are the unworthy. Their only qualification is that they’re disqualified, so they’re starting to repent. Matthew 5 is Repentance 101 for us all. The Lord is coaching us in a whole new way of thinking. If reading Matthew 5 makes us feel defeated, let’s not be afraid of that. Failure is where we find God – or where God finds us. Failure brought to God brings us together in a new kind of community.
It’s painful for us to face our failures. It’s painful to see ourselves and be honest before God about what we see. But it’s a wonderful breakthrough. Jesus is calling us into that painful, wonderful place. We tend to look better than we really are. That’s why Jesus isn’t speaking here to obviously sinful people. He is speaking to apparently virtuous people. He has three kinds of people in mind here in Matthew 5. Think back to verses 27-30 from last week. Who was our Lord talking to? Compulsive adulterers? No. He was talking to husbands who think they’re faithful because their adultery is only in their minds.
But the kingdom of heaven is not about appearances. But my point is, life isn’t as simple as good people vs. bad people. Jesus sees three kinds of people: obvious sinners, hypocritical sinners, repentant sinners. In Matthew 5 he is speaking past the obvious sinners, to the hypocritical sinners, inviting us to become repentant sinners in his new community. But ultimately, it isn’t even about our repentance. Jesus himself is where the blessing of God comes down on sinful men with dirty minds whose hearts are cracking open to Jesus. Your primary need is not to gain mastery over your sins. Your primary need is to stay open to Jesus, relentlessly open, painfully open, honestly open, and he will give you a better you deep inside.
Here’s what every one of us needs to lose. We need to lose the righteousness of the Pharisees. Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). There is a kind of goodness that offends the Lord. There is even a way of reading the Bible that’s wrong. It is possible to read the Bible as the opposite of what it really is and then take that misunderstanding and use it to tear down the community Jesus came to build up. Bible-quoting people are dangerous, if they’re still unbroken before the Lord. When Jesus calls us to repent, he isn’t thinking only of our sins. He’s also thinking of our own self-invented goodness, and even our Bible reading. And we lock onto the real Jesus not by becoming smarter but by repenting. The rabbis in Jesus’ day read the Bible the wrong way, so that even the Bible made them worse. In Matthew 5 Jesus is teaching us how to read the Bible with a penitent heart.
What is this deadly righteousness of the Pharisees? It’s a minimalist “Give me the bottom-line,” “Just tell me how little I can get by with but still think of myself as a good person,” “Please define for me where to draw the line I shouldn’t cross, so that I can get close to that line and still be on God’s side” – even if we don’t cross the line, that whole mentality is wrong. It’s hypocrisy. It’s a heart that says to God, “If I comply with your lowest acceptable standard, then I’m better than all those bad people out there? And you’ll stay off my back?” But Jesus turns reluctant foot-draggers into wholehearted God-seekers. So let’s not read Matthew 5 and think, “If I’m supposed to crank it up even further, then tell me the new bottom line.” Jesus breaks through that hypocrisy with his love. Augustine wrote so long ago:
Give me a man in love; he knows what I mean. Give me one who yearns; give me one who is hungry; give me one far away in this desert, who is thirsty and sighs for the spring of the Eternal country. Give me that sort of man; he knows what I mean. But if I speak to a cold man, he just does not know what I am talking about.
Our greatest sin is not, say, adultery. Our greatest sin is not being in love with God. It’s my greatest sin. But Jesus loves half-hearted hypocrites so much, we get traction to change. We build a new community of honesty and joy together.
In this part of Matthew 5 the Lord is giving us samples of what his new community looks like. He isn’t picking on single issues, whether murder or adultery or whatever. He is showing us the difference he makes. He shows us the heart of his new community, the secret genius of it, from different angles of vision, so that we can get the hang of it. Today he presses into two areas of our lives. First, divorce. Second, promises.
It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” —Matthew 5:31
Divorce is complex, and painful. I would never want to increase anyone’s pain but only bring comfort. We all feel that way. Jesus feels it far more. So let’s receive what he’s saying with open hearts.
He is showing us how the kingdom of heaven comes down into a divorce situation. What does that look like? Not what we naturally think. The Old Testament had a law about divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). God never told people to get a divorce. But if a couple did get a divorce, God’s law said that it be done in a way that protected the divorced woman from being traded around like a used car. In that ancient culture, it was harder for a woman to survive economically on her own. So a divorced woman usually remarried. And God wanted divorced women, when they were still out on their own, to be protected. That was his heart in the law of Deuteronomy 24 – to defend vulnerable women against being passed around at the whims of men. That’s what the Bible was really saying.
But how did people read that Old Testament law? We can make the Bible say anything, if our hearts are wrong. We can read the Bible with that minimalist bottom line-mentality. The rabbis did. That’s what Jesus is digging into here. He quotes the popular misunderstanding: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” Do you see the problem? Back in the Old Testament, the law of God was meant to protect a woman. But it was twisted into how a man can safeguard himself. All he has to do is complete the paperwork with proper procedure: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” God wanted to talk about justice and mercy. We changed the subject to legal technicalities – submitting the right forms, in triplicate, while treating a precious wife as a steppingstone to something better, and then thinking we’re good men because what we did went by the book. But what about the woman? What about her future? She’s divorced. She’s heartbroken. God cares. So should we. But this traditional mis-reading of the Bible turned a restriction on human exploitation into a procedure for human exploitation. There is a way of reading the Bible that makes us worse. All we need is a desire to look better than we really are and a craving for human approval rather than reality with God. Jesus said, “If the light within you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:23).
But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. —Matthew 5:32
The Pharisees were preoccupied with the grounds for divorce. Jesus was preoccupied with faithfulness in marriage. The rabbis compiled their discussions of the grounds for divorce in a book called The Mishnah. It comes from around the time of Jesus. Here is one paragraph:
The School of Shammai say, “A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her, for it is written, ‘Because he has found in her indecency in anything.’” And the School of Hillel say, “He may divorce her even if she spoiled his dinner, for it is written, ‘Because he has found in her indecency in anything.’” Rabbi Akiba says, “[He may divorce her] even if he found another woman more beautiful than she, for it is written, ‘And if she finds no favor in his eyes….’”
There is a way to squeeze the words of the Bible to make it serve our own, self-serving, minimalist ethic. That is the righteousness we settle for, without Jesus loving us and correcting us, and then we call our own self-invented righteousness biblical. We put our hypocrisy in the mouth of God. We project our worst religious selves onto God. We create God in our own image. That is the “righteousness” Jesus deconstructs.
He allows that an extreme offense – sexual betrayal – permits divorce. But the whole tilt of his heart is the opposite. He moves us toward strong marriages that safeguard not only our own sexual integrity but also that of other men and other women. He is calling us to build a community where women who’ve been rejected have nothing to fear and men who are lonely still put God first. That is where verse 32 takes us. Don’t get caught up in extrapolating from this verse to all the complex human situations in divorce and remarriage. Jesus doesn’t answer those questions. Yes, he allows divorce. But repentant people don’t press toward what he allows. Repentant people reach for what he intends. And what he intends is sexual faithfulness inside us and among us. Isn’t that what we need? Every marriage is hard to keep alive. But every marriage can also have Jesus, who is saying to us today, “I will never divorce you. I will never leave you nor forsake you. Read the Bible with that in mind. Don’t look for loopholes. I didn’t put any in there. I’m a wholehearted lover, looking for wholehearted responders. Read the Bible to warm your heart with my endless love for you. Then the kingdom of heaven will come down into your difficult marriage.”
It’s easy to feel the urgency of healing in marriage and divorce. It’s harder to feel the urgency of where the Lord goes next. But his teaching about marriage naturally leads to promises and vows:
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil. —Matthew 5:33-36
Again, it’s about community. It’s about honesty. It’s about what holds us together. The glue of life is promises. We take vows when we get married. We take an oath in court. We make promises to God when we get into trouble. A friend of mine was surfing in California and took off on a monster wave. In that terrifying split second at the top of that wave, the cry welled up from his heart, “Lord, if you’ll get me off this wave, I’m yours forever!” Promises build relationships.
But promises started with God. He made us promises in the Bible. He has promised us his best. And we’re banking everything on his personal faithfulness. If God lets us down, we’re damned. But he won’t. Here’s why. God is in control. No one forced him to promise us anything, and no one can stop him from following through. There is nothing else at God’s level to complicate our promised future. The book of Hebrews says that the promises of God are “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:19). As we face all the uncertainties of this life and we wonder how it’s all going to play out, what stabilizes us? The promises of God. All our happiness hangs on the sanctity of this unchangeable fact: God cannot break his promises.
But sometimes we do. That’s when community breaks down. But keeping a promise – like our church covenant – can be costly. Inevitably, it is. The rabbis got to working on this problem, and they found an answer. They shifted the focus from the vow itself to the formula used in making the vow. Over in chapter 23 Jesus exposes this hypocrisy: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath’” (Matthew 23:16). So people could wiggle out of their promises, if they used a certain wording. Again, it’s a way of going by the letter of the law, so as to maximize room for sin and minimize the cost of obedience but still call it righteousness. Jesus has nothing but contempt for that. If we are outright sinners and need his help, he’s all in. But if we are sneaky sinners who want to keep up appearances, he’s out.
Do you know what happens to us when the kingdom of heaven comes in power? It might not seem like a big deal to us, but it really matters to the Lord, because he’s building a new community. But what happens to us when the kingdom comes in power is this. Our Yes and our No are honest. They can both be taken at face value, and our community is strong, because nobody has to wonder what’s really going on. We can depend on each other. But when we preface what we say with, “Well, to be honest, . . .” – why say that at all? Without it, should people wonder? Why not be honest all the time? Honesty should be the rule, not the exception. Or how about “God bless you,” when we don’t mean it? Or even “God damn it,” when we don’t mean it? Our words matter, ultimately because God’s words matter, and he made us in his image to communicate truth and reality with one another. But if we build into our words hidden loopholes and escape clauses and fine print and empty meanings, it comes from evil. God gave us the capacity for speech for plain truth, embarrassing truth, inconvenient truth, unglamorous truth, unimpressive truth, awkward truth, truth honest enough to be refreshing.
God is a man of his word, if I may put it that way. Everything hangs on that. The universe is not disintegrating but keeps going because God has made promises to you. His heart toward you is simple: “Yes.” The Bible says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in Jesus” (2 Corinthians 1:20). God answer to your repentance is not No, not Yes but, not Maybe. His answer is simple: Yes. Do you long to be forgiven? In Jesus, God’s answer is Yes. Do you need wisdom and strength for today? In Jesus, God’s answer is Yes. Everything worth having is in Jesus, and it’s not just available but promised to you by God. What is our part? The Bible says, “Through Jesus we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20). God is speaking his gospel promises to us today, to us in our need, and his message is a simple, wholehearted Yes. We are receiving his promises with the empty hands of faith and saying back to him, Amen. God’s Yes and our Amen together build us into a new kind of community where we can be honest with each other and can count on each other.
This is what our city needs to see in us, so that they can join us in Christ.