Is Jesus giving us a rule that we’re to follow regardless of circumstances? Should a wife who’s discovered that her husband has been sexually abusing her children, for example, stay with that husband because Jesus indicated that divorce + remarriage = adultery?
Answer: no, of course not. God hates divorce, yes. He created marriage for a reason, and He doesn’t readily accept the right of human beings to nullify it. But Jesus’ point goes deeper than this. He’s addressing not the legal act of terminating a marriage but the motivations behind it.
He’s saying: If adultery is in your heart, you don’t get to use divorce as your guilt-free way of making it happen. You don’t get to capitalize on a legal loophole to indemnify the lust you've been harbouring for someone who isn't your spouse. The Message paraphrase’s this nicely:
If you divorce your wife, you’re responsible for making her an adulteress (unless she has already made herself that by sexual promiscuity). And if you marry such a divorced adulteress, you’re automatically an adulterer yourself. You can’t use legal cover to mask a moral failure.
Matthew 5:32 (the MSG - emphasis mine)
This point is made, and should be seen, within the broader context of a sermon that is designed to get us to align our hearts with the spirit of the law, rather than arranging our lives in accordance with the letter of it. He's trying to write the law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33); he's trying to get us to clean the inside of the cup (Matthew 23:26).
Yes, generally speaking, divorce is a terrible idea. I hate the fact that it's readily seen in our society as an unhappy but legally convenient way to terminate what's proven to be an unfulfilling relationship (as if the purpose of marriage is self-centered satisfaction - it's not). Many Christian marriages have survived terrible times and went on to become wonderful unions in great part because both partners declared divorce "off the table" from the wedding day forward.
But let’s not miss the point Jesus is trying to make. When we align our hearts with the spirit of God’s perfect law, we are always free to do what’s right.
It’s said that those who stand for nothing fall for everything. Is Paul preaching moral ambiguity here? Or is he saying, “because I’m not under the law, I can do whatever I want and I’m saved anyway?” Should we follow his example, and just “do whatever”?
Yes and no. Yes, we would do well to follow Paul’s example; no, we should not just “do whatever”. This isn’t what Paul is advocating. While Christians fiercely debate what it means to be “not under the law, but Grace” (see Ephesians 2:8-9), I submit that we get a glimpse in 2 Corinthians:
He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
2 Corinthians 3:6
This passage is saying that we have been freed from the letter of the law so that we are free to abide by the spirit of the law. Practical example?
I have daughters who are not yet of an age where we need to discuss curfews. When we get there, however, my wife and I are going to have two choices: enforce the letter of the law (“you are to be home by 9:00 PM, no exceptions”) or, communicate the spirit of the law (“be home at a reasonable hour so your mother and I don’t worry”). An obedient daughter would use this freedom to do the right thing. She would often be home well before 9:00 most nights, and would ensure that she phones in if circumstances put her home later than usual. Why? Because the spirit of the law (the “why”, if you will) is so your mother and I don’t worry. As a loving and obedient daughter, she loves us and doesn’t want us to worry, so she makes sure we don’t have to.
The narrative of the Bible, taken as a whole, paints a picture in which the letter of the law (enforced by legal compulsion in Israel) fails to produce this kind of loving obedience. It achieves, in fact, quite the opposite.
Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died.
The remedy? God voluntarily offers up His Son’s life to pay the price of our sins and remove the compulsion of the law, so that we may voluntarily submit to His rule in love and obedience.
Now, while there are still things that God clearly does not like and should be avoided, period, we would do well in this context to avoid viewing “right and wrong” as binary concepts. Scripture is filled with what outsiders believe to be “contradictory” teachings, not because they actually contradict, but because the right thing to do is often situational. What do I mean by this?
Think of doing the right thing in the context of playing a piano (full disclosure: I didn’t invent this concept, CS Lewis did). Is playing the key of E right or wrong? Stupid question, right? It depends on the song and the specific chord progression.
Is it wrong to lie? Most of the time, yes, but what if you were living in Nazi Germany and hiding Jews in your home; if the Gestapo came by and asked if you were harbouring Jews, would it be wrong to lie then?
There are those who would say “absolutely, a lie is a lie is a lie” and accuse me of being morally ambiguous because I suggested otherwise. But I would submit that the person who insists on such a binary approach is the morally ambiguous one. Why? Because they believe that in this situation, you’re in the wrong no matter what you do. It would be wrong to turn Jews over to the Gestapo so they can be shipped off to a death camp, but it would also be wrong to lie. In this instance, Grace may be a “get out of jail free card”, but it’s hardly liberating, is it?
However, if we take the piano approach, you always have the opportunity to do the right thing. Think about that. You can always decide to obey the Spirit of the law, the purpose of the law, the heart of the law, which is to love God with your whole heart and your neighbour as yourself. In this context, Grace does more than get you out of hell, it liberates you so you can do the right thing.
Naturally, that doesn’t mean you always will do what’s right (you’re still wrestling with the flesh, after all), but it does mean that you’re free to pursue the work of the Gospel with vigour, free from having to wrestle with ethically uncertain situations (must I decline an invitation to dinner with receptive unbelievers because they have a buddha statue in their home?) because the letter of the law is no longer a constraint.
Should we translate this into “I’m free to attend this drunken orgy because I might have an opportunity to share the Gospel”? Don’t be stupid, of course not. Why? Because:
Heavenly Father, your ways amaze us. You used your Son’s sacrifice on the cross to create a new Kingdom, one in which every single citizen is there, and obedient, not by compulsion but by choice. Who else has done such a thing? Make us fitting citizens of your Kingdom so we may continually offer you ever more fitting praise and honour. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Colin McComb is a sincere and committed Christian living in Edson, Alberta.
If there were an objective test you could employ to measure the love in your church against the kind of love the bible commands, would it pass?
Most North American churches run like volunteer organizations with optional programming that all in attendance can (and typically do) take or leave at their leisure. The commitment level is roughly correlated to any given family’s ability to “fit in” whatever bible studies or church activities they enjoy. 10-20% of your average church family runs the whole show – overextending their personal commitments well past the point of burnout – while the remainder pick and choose their activities like finicky eaters at a buffet. Disaffected parishioners can often be found waltzing out on a Sunday morning with whispered complaints about the music selection, critiques on the sermon, and general comments about “not feeling fed”.
But how does the bible tell us to approach the church, by which I mean the biblical definition of church, your fellow believers? It tells us to approach it with a love that imitates Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for our sins. It calls on us to be prepared to die for one another.
But if we're to be honest, most of us treat our fellow believers with no more deference than we approach our colleagues at work. We hang out with those we like, ignore those we don’t, and make soft cooing sounds of support (but not much use) when we’re informed that someone is suffering.
But here’s John: “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love”, and Jesus, for that matter: “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them”. (Luke 6:32)
Love that isn’t willing to sacrifice? It isn’t love.
And they ate and were well filled,
for he gave them what they craved.
- Psalm 78:29
Will God answer our self-defeating prayers? Scripture seems to indicate that’s a distinct possibility.
When the Israelites complained relentlessly in the wilderness that the manna - the bread of angels - God had sent them wasn’t enough, He answered their prayers for meat. He gave them so much meat that they ate themselves sick (Numbers 11:18-20). What blessings would have awaited them - how soon and how triumphant their entry into the promised land - had they merely trusted and obeyed? We’ll never know.
What blessings await us if, instead of giving the Lord instructions on how to bless us, we simply ask Him to bless us as only He can? Could this be the game-changer we’ve been seeking, simple and unreserved trust?
Heavenly Father, how foolish we can be. While we read these verses and sanctimoniously judge in our hearts the people of Israel - people who were in much more difficult circumstances than most of us - we pass along a list of demands, just as they did. In doing so, there’s a possibility that we will miss the richest blessings that You have to offer. Forgive us our foolishness. Ignore our self-defeating prayers, and teach us to pray in a manner that pleases You and gives You free reign in our lives. Amen.
Hezekiah is dying, a fact that Isaiah confirms prior to the above. Hezekiah pleads to the Lord for more time, and the Lord grants his request, instructing Isaiah to inform the king he’ll have another fifteen years on earth (2 Kings 20:5). On hearing the news, Hezekiah, rather than being filled with gratitude, asks for a miraculous confirmation of the prophecy.
My personal theory is that Isaiah here responds with a common-sense analogy that is meant only to convey a point. He’s not offering to perform a miracle, but telling the king to give his head a shake: “Time moves forward, not backward. Cause precedes effect. You’ll have your sign when you receive your healing.” Or more directly: “God granted your request, don’t be greedy.”
Ahaz completely misses the point, and perceives instead that Isaiah has offered him a choice in miracles; would you like the shadow on the sundial to go forward or backward, to suit my liege’s command? What arrogance!
What’s remarkable about this story, though, is that Isaiah, confident in God’s faithfulness, facilitates the requested miracle nonetheless. There is no mention of Isaiah going back into the Lord’s presence to deliberate, he just does it. God, through Isaiah, accommodates Hezekiah’s somewhat childish follow-up petition and performs an outright miracle.
The application for today?
As ministers of the Lord, we should expect those to whom we minister to behave in silly ways, even when the glory of God has already been manifested.
Hezekiah is all-too-ready to take Isaiah at his word when the pronouncement is death. One would think that, after an earnest plea for mercy, the prophet returning to his room to reverse his former communication would suffice. No dice. Hezekiah has now risen from his supplications, and gone back to making demands, in the blink of an eye.
We should expect that, even when the people to whom we minister behave in silly ways, God will act.
If our Lord waited for us to say and do the right things before manifesting His glory, we’d be waiting an awfully long time. There are times, yes, when God makes the miraculous happen because He’s pleased with a particular petition (Matthew 8:10-13, Luke 8:48, Mark 7:29). But He also blesses us when we miss the mark (Luke 22:49-51, Matthew 17:27, Mark 4:39). This is called grace.
When we’re about His business, God has our backs
As Christians we might be tempted to put ourselves into Hezekiah’s shoes in this story, rather than Hezekiah’s. Hezekiah seems more fallible, somehow, less “chosen”. But we ought to put ourselves in Isaiah’s shoes. If we’re Christians, we are:
A chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
- 1 Peter 2:9
In this story I am Isaiah, and I need to know that I can trust God to back my play, providing of course that I am truly acting as His ambassador, serving His interests, and building His Kingdom. Note that Isaiah was called to have this conversation to begin with. He doesn’t veer out of his swim lane to offer a miracle. He’s exactly where he’s supposed to be; and within that context, he decides to trust God to hit the curve ball Hezekiah just threw in his direction.
Life is messy, and it doesn’t always go according to plan. But if we’re certain we’re about His business, we ought not to be uncertain in carrying it out.
Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid of them; for the LORD your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.
- Deuteronomy 31:6
If we pray for the Lord to come into our otherwise self-centered lives and work some sort of financial or personal miracle, solve our dilemma so we can go back to living our lives free of unnecessary biblical interference, we pray as the pagans do. God is not a genie, and the bible is not a magic lamp. When people we don’t even know go on Facebook or Twitter and ‘proclaim’ to us that our financial problems are going to be solved in the mighty name of Jesus, we should ignore them; we certainly shouldn’t type “amen” into the comment field so this ‘magic’ will somehow rub off on us.
If we are about His business, however, our lack of confidence in His ability – and His willingness – to perform whatever miracle is necessary to accomplish His work is problematic.
How, I wonder, will it come about (if ever?) that I look a sick person in the eye and command them to be healed in the name of Jesus? My thinking says that it would be terrible of me to give someone false hope in such a way – what sort of ego-driven charlatan would dare? But is my thinking biblical? Is it false hope to presume that the Lord wants to heal today, to perform miracles, not so my Christian ego will be satisfied, but so His glory will be revealed? At which point do we read the bible and decide that we actually believe this stuff?
Since I’ve given the Holy Spirit a daily invitation to work in my life, I have seen the miraculous underpinnings of circumstances – unlikely and all-too frequent coincidences enabling me and my family to reach people who might otherwise have gone unreached – “weird things happening”, as we call it.
But I am not, at present, a worker of His miracles. Why? I suspect I’ll find the answer to that question on the day I trust His thinking more than my own.
I believe that the more we grow in faith, the harder it will be to tolerate the ignorant speech of mockers. Harder to love the lost? No, that’s not what I’m saying. Rather it will be more difficult to take it when people deliberately target our Lord with ignorant scorn and derision. We want to protect the dignity and reputations of those we love; the more we love God, the more protective we become.
Recently my oldest daughter, who is ten and was just recently baptized, became angry with a child on the school bus who was deliberately taking the Lord’s name in vain. The angrier she became, the further he pushed the boundaries, realizing that this was an excellent way to get under her skin. I told her afterwards that while it’s good she is unhappy with such talk, she doesn’t benefit anyone by getting upset. “Our Lord is a big boy”, I said, “He can take care of Himself. Your job is to love people like this and be a good witness for Jesus”.
Oh, how easy it is for me to give advice like this, how hard for me to take it when my Lord’s name is being targeted and blasphemed! What does the bible have to say in such circumstances?
The Lord mocks the mockers but is gracious to the humble.
- Proverbs 3:34
"But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. "
- Matthew 23:12
We are encouraged to remember the end-game here. Our Lord does not, in fact, need our protection (though I’m certain He is honoured by our devotion). He reminds us that He has the last say, and those of us who have chosen to honour Him with our hearts and mouths will receive honour in return.
Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God?
- James 4:4
"God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers. Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.”
- Matthew 5:11-12
"Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Your enemies will be right in your own household!"
- Matthew 10:34-36
We are reminded that we’re not supposed to be friends with the world. If we are Jesus’ disciples, we are to expect enmity. We are living in territory that is unlawfully and diabolically held by Satan himself. You are surrounded by his subjects. Why does Jesus command us to love our enemies? Because we have them.
God’s enemies are your enemies. And while you are under instructions to love your enemies, your enemies are under no such orders. On the contrary, they break faith with the Devil when they treat you kindly. Remember that.
"If any household or town refuses to welcome you or listen to your message, shake its dust from your feet as you leave. I tell you the truth, the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be better off than such a town on the judgment day."
- Matthew 10:14-15
"Don’t waste what is holy on people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs! They will trample the pearls, then turn and attack you.”
- Matthew 7:6
While we are never permitted to “turn off our love”, we are permitted, instructed in fact, to cease throwing God’s pearl’s before swine and take the message to more receptive ears. Discerning this, of course, takes the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in our lives. I’m reminded of Nabeel Qureshi’s amazing conversion from Islam, and how it took place thanks mainly to the persistence of his friend David, who ministered to him for years. But noticeably absent from this story is Nabeel persecuting his friend David, heaping scorn and derision on his head.
Why? Because it didn’t happen. They had fights, of course, and ignorant things were said, but there is little mention of David having to endure a consistent barrage of blasphemy for his efforts. Had that been the case, I think, he would have been well advised to walk away. The bottom line? If those we are witnessing to insist on ignorance and blasphemy, unless we feel specifically called to keep at it, there are more receptive audiences to whom we can and ought to go.
Bottom line, it’s tough to take it when people joyfully mock our Lord; but it’s a part of the deal. Fortunately, we have scripture, prayer, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, to see us through. Amen.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.