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Divorce, _Apolyō_, and Matthew 19

Monday, May 17, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, the centuries-long dispute over marriage, divorce, and remarriage popped up on my Facebook feed again.  As usual, somebody found a reason why they thought that the restriction of Matthew 19:9 did not apply to Christians today who are divorced for reasons other than a spouse’s adultery.

In this case, the argument centers around the Greek word apolyō, which is rendered as “divorce” in our modern translations of Matthew 19:9.  That notwithstanding, proponents of this view claim that apolyō should not be translated as “divorce”.  They note that the KJV translates it as “put away” (as indeed it is translated in other contexts in modern translations), and they assert that putting away was an action distinct from divorce.  Formal divorce involved the writing of divorce of Deuteronomy 24:1; putting away was just informally kicking your wife to the curb.  Thus, Matthew 19:9 does not apply to the formal divorces of our day, and all divorced Christians can remarry without fear.

As appealing as this argument is (Matthew 19:9 certainly is among the hard sayings of Jesus, and life would be easier for all of us if it became a dead letter), there are several problems with it.  First, I’m not aware of any evidence that the Jews of Jesus’ day made a distinction between informal putting away and formal divorce.  If you’re going to hang your whole argument on the existence of an ancient custom, you probably need to establish that the custom existed first!

Second, this is a the-translators-got-it-wrong argument, and we always should regard those with skepticism.  Admittedly, translators and Greek scholars are not perfect, and they sometimes make mistakes in their work with ancient languages.  However, if even experts in the field can err, how much more error-prone are non-experts likely to be!  If we can’t prove our argument from the Bible without making a significant change in translation, we are staking our souls on the presumption that we are right and hundreds of original-language scholars are wrong.  That may represent insight, but it more likely represents self-deception.

Third, the Bible uses apolyō to mean “divorce”, which probably is why all the scholars reached that conclusion in the first place.  In Matthew 19:8, Jesus notes, “Moses permitted you to apolyō your wives.”  What did Moses permit?  Not informally sending wives away, that’s for sure!  The only procedure in the Law for separating from one’s spouse is the formal divorce-certificate process of Deuteronomy 24:1, which the Pharisees cite in Matthew 19:7.  Thus, Jesus uses apolyō to refer to formal divorce, and we should understand Him as doing so in Matthew 19:9, which is the very next verse.

Matthew 19:9 isn’t anybody’s favorite commandment.  However, it is a restriction that God in His wisdom and holiness has bound upon all people.  As much sorrow as enforcing it can cause in this life, failure to enforce it will lead to much greater sorrow in the life to come.

God Is at Work in You!

Friday, May 07, 2021

A few months ago, Clay examined Philippians 2:12-13 in a sermon, dwelling especially on v. 13.  I’ve known for years that brethren have a bad habit of focusing on “Work out your own salvation,” to the exclusion of “It is God who is working in you.”  However, Clay’s study of the latter point brought home something I had never realized before.

God is working in every obedient Christian.  Right now.  He is working in me.  Right now.  He is working in you.  Right now.

To describe this as heartening would be an understatement!  Like many preachers, I struggle with the temptation to believe the insidious lie of Malachi 3:14.  The devil very much wants us to believe that it is useless to serve God.  In this pandemic era of social isolation, reduced or nonexistent assembling, and Christians fighting and splitting churches over dumb stuff like wearing masks, he seems to have a stronger case than normal.  Why not give up?  It won’t make any difference, right?

Wrong.  Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.  Even if it is not obvious to us, the arc of history bends toward God.  He will work out His will, He will accomplish His purpose, and He will glorify Himself through His people if they will let Him do it.

The health-and-wealth preachers have a point, kind of.  God does have a plan for your life.  However, His plan is not for you to enjoy earthly happiness.  It is for you to put your nose to the grindstone and do right every single day, cheerfully, unfailingly.  If you do, He will use you to accomplish what He wants to accomplish.

We cannot know what that is, not this side of Jordan, at least, and there is no point in speculating.  If you preach the gospel and nobody listens, that does not mean you have failed.  If you fight to raise godly children but they fall away, that does not mean you have failed either.  God knew that His people wouldn’t listen to Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but He sent them anyway.  Sometimes the Spirit convicts rather than converting, but that too is in accord with His purpose.

Throughout history, it always has seemed as though the cause of righteousness is failing.  It seemed so when the wicked rejected Noah, when Israel sank into corruption in the time of the judges, when Solomon forsook the Lord, when the Israelites were carried captive, when Jesus was crucified, and when Saul shattered the Jerusalem church.  God’s people always appear to be given over to death.  If it seems so in the present time, that should not surprise us.

Of course, the cause of God never actually does fail.  Repeatedly, He brings about salvation in ways that no one else could have foreseen.  He accomplishes His most spectacular works in the hours that seem darkest.

So it will be for us, if indeed we do not grow weary and lose heart.  If we work, God will be at work in us, and He will succeed in His purpose.  Go then, and work, whether preaching or teaching or supporting your family or raising your kids or watching your grandkids.  Even if nobody else notices or cares, you can be certain that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

A Note About Grace

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Preaching on grace is vital, but grace without sin is a solution in search of a problem, and grace without hell is meaningless.  If the good news of the gospel is segregated from the ugly truths of human existence, it ceases to be good.

What's the Problem with Porn?

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

In recent days, my daughter’s reading tastes have begun to shift from tween lit to young-adult fiction.  Though I’m not sorry to say goodbye to the likes of Dork Diaries, this shift also awakens some unease in my wife and me.  We know that YA fic has become increasingly racy in recent years, and in any event, it won’t be long before the advent of physical maturity exposes both of my children to the temptations of pornography.

To say the least, the struggle against porn has not gone well for God’s people over the past several decades.  Few indeed are the Christian men these days who haven’t had problems with porn.  Increasingly, though, smut salesmen have figured out how to peddle their wares to women too.  Take, for instance, the hot new Netflix series Bridgerton, which is perhaps best described as pornography dressed up like Jane Austen.  Men are hardly the target audience there!

In the face of this onslaught, the old standby argument of lust-is-a-sin-so-don’t-use-porn, though true, has proven inadequate.  If we want to safeguard ourselves and our children from pornography, we have to arrive at a more profound understanding than that.  Porn use isn’t merely a problem because it violates a thou-shalt-not.  It’s a problem because it subverts and corrupts God’s intent for human sexuality.

We should pay much more attention than we do to the fact that in Ephesians 5:31-32, Paul by the Holy Spirit compares the one-flesh relationship between husband and wife to the relationship between Christ and the church.  It’s commonplace for ministers performing a wedding to describe marriage as sacred, but most Christians, even married Christians, don’t want to contemplate the sacredness of marital intimacy. 

Like all of God’s handiwork, it is nourishing, affirming, and life-giving (in many senses).  As husband and wife grow spiritually and in their relationship with each other, their delight in coming together grows too.  In the affection, understanding, and trust of the marriage bed, we expose ourselves completely, body, heart, and soul, and we rejoice to find ourselves known and loved regardless.  This is perhaps the closest we can come on earth to experiencing what it is like to be seen and known and loved by God.

Godly sexuality is one of His most beautiful creations, so we should not be surprised that Satan hates it and yearns to destroy it.  His malice is evident in unhappy marriages, in sexual immorality, and increasingly in enslavement to pornography.  Like all that Satan does, these things are counterfeits of the original, having the appearance of God’s good work without its reality.

This is most obvious with porn.  Immorality at least involves a one-flesh experience with somebody, but porn use doesn’t involve anybody.  Pleasure is present, but intimacy is always, devastatingly, absent.  Porn does not create, for it is sterile.  It does not enrich, for it is empty.  It does not unite, for it is lonely.

Pornography certainly existed 2000 years ago (witness the frescoes that have been unearthed in the brothels of Pompeii), but Paul never could have used it to illustrate the relationship between Christ and the church.  That relationship is fundamentally selfless.  Christ surrendered everything to His bride in death; she surrenders everything to Him in life.  So too, God intends for husbands and wives to surrender everything to one another in the intimacy of marriage (of which sexual intimacy is both a part and an analog). 

By contrast, porn is selfish.  You have no thought for anyone else; it’s entirely about you.  Thus, the porn user falls prey to the great paradox of selfishness.  There is great joy in serving others, but there is no joy in serving the self.  Instead, selfishness hollows us out like a worm in an apple.

There are no happy, contented, flourishing porn users.  No one returns repeatedly to that first picture, that first video, finding it ever more fulfilling than it was the first time.  Instead, the pleasures of porn swiftly begin to pall.  What was once captivating quickly becomes boring, and so the porn user (or, by this time, more properly “porn addict”) begins a futile, frantic search to rediscover what they have lost. 

Over time, they turn to depictions that are ever more shocking and extreme, but more and more, those things offer less and less.  They learn that the hardness of heart caused by sin is most of all a problem for the sinner.  Eventually, the greatest depravity that the Internet has to offer elicits scarcely a quiver, but still the addict continues, miserable but hoping desperately that what they find with the next swipe, the next mouse click, will help them feel something again.

Sadly, the addict becomes insensible not only to evil but also to good.  In training themselves to focus on seeming rather than substance, they lose the ability to appreciate union with their spouse.  In marriage, physical attraction is only the tip of the iceberg, but if all you care about is physical attraction, no flesh-and-blood spouse can compete with the airbrushed impossibility available online.  Living waters flow from following God’s design in marriage, but the addict returns futilely to the broken cistern of pornography, hoping to find there what it never can offer.

Such a combination of misery and enslavement always has a diabolical origin, but anyone who truly wants to be free can conquer through Christ.  The road out of porn addiction, as with any addiction, is long and difficult, but escape is possible.

It is far better for all of us, though, to learn to see the trap surrounding the bait before we take that first bite.  We need wisdom to avoid the snare that Satan has laid, and we also need courage to teach others about it.  Sex is nobody’s favorite topic in Bible class or at the dinner table, but the more we emphasize the joys of obedience and the dangers of sin, the more likely we are to evade temptation.

This article originally appeared in the March issue of Pressing On.

Freedom in Christ

Thursday, April 08, 2021

I few days ago, I posted a bulletin article about Galatians 3:23-25 and Paul’s proclamation that we are no longer under the Law of Moses.  In particular, I applied this to the use of instrumental music in worship and explained that the use of the instrument in Psalms and elsewhere is not relevant to our practice today.

Not surprisingly, this generated a fair amount of spirited, though civil, discussion.  I replied to most commenters inthread, but there was one that I thought deserved a longer response.  This commenter said, “Seems like strange logic to say ‘you are no longer under a guardian’, therefore you have these new restrictions (no instrumental music), even though those restrictions were never actually given. Being no longer under a guardian implies more freedom, not more restrictions.”  I asked for and got permission from him to address his comment separately.

I think this comment gets to the heart of what it means to follow Christ instead of following Moses.  Because we are justified by faith instead of justified by works, our motives for obedience are different.

Let’s start with the justification-by-works side first.  Justification by works is necessarily minimum-seeking.  If you agree to work for someone for eight hours to receive a given amount of money, you go home when your shift is over, and they pay you no more than they had promised.  Everybody involved meets the standard (if they are just people), but no one exceeds it.  To work longer or pay more would be an act of mercy, not justice.

Justification by faith is different.  In the spiritual realm, none of us want what is due us!  We don’t want justice.  We want mercy, and we receive it through faith in Christ.  He justified us when it was impossible for us to justify ourselves.

At this point, we encounter the rhetorical question of Romans 6:13.  Should we sin because we are not under the Law but under grace?  In other words, if my works are not contributing to my justification in any way, why continue to work?  In the remainder of the chapter, Paul replies that simply because we have been freed from the Law does not mean that we can do whatever we want.  Rather, we have become slaves to righteousness.

However, the mode of slavery is different.  We are not like the “wage slave” of the system of works.  We don’t work because we want to earn our wages.  Instead, we work because of the gift that has been given us.  As per 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, the love of Christ compels us.  He died for me, so I must live for Him.

This kind of slavery is far more profound than the other.  When it comes to Jesus, I don’t ask, “How long must I work?”  I ask, “How much can I give?”  Nothing is too much for the One who rescued me from hell by a single transcendent act of mercy!  Indeed, nothing is enough.

This transforms the way I read the Bible too.  I don’t turn to the Scriptures to figure out what I can get away with.  I turn to them to figure out everything that I can possibly do to please my Lord. 

This makes the instrumental-music question easy.  I know for certain that singing praises to Jesus pleases and honors Him.  I don’t know that adding the instrument to my worship pleases and honors Him.  There’s no evidence that it does. 

At this point, I could lawyer and weasel and say, “Well, Jesus never told me not to!”  That’s true, but it’s irrelevant.  In real life, I’m not bringing in the instrument for Him (no evidence, remember?).  I’m bringing it in for me.  I’m taking the life that He bought and paid for, and I’m trying to reclaim some of that life for myself. 

That’s not who I am.  That person died in the waters of baptism, and I’m determined to make sure he stays dead!

So it is that in Christ, we are freed from the Law and the need to justify ourselves, yet we also are enslaved in the most complete bondage that a human being can experience.  Every action, every word, and even every thought must be taken captive to the obedience of Christ.  As part of that obedience, until somebody can show me that instrumental worship is about serving Jesus instead of serving the self, I’m not interested.

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