Of all the ordinances of God, perhaps the most difficult to apply is Matthew 19:9. Like most preachers, I’ve been in the painful position of having to tell an apparently happy couple that their marriage is unlawful in God’s eyes, and that if they wish to please Him, they will have to separate. I don’t relish these conversations, but I believe that it’s my duty to have them.
Some, however, want to avoid this painful responsibility by claiming that it’s not really what God would want, especially when such marriages have produced children. Isn’t God a pro-family God? Wouldn’t He want the father and mother to remain together when their divorce would inflict such emotional harm on their offspring?
I think that any valid argument that would exempt couples with children from the restrictions of Matthew 19 would quickly win acceptance. Nobody likes being the bearer of family-destroying news. However, the evidence we have points in the opposite direction. God is a pro-family God, but even more than that, He’s a pro-holiness God.
We see this most clearly in the story of the latter half of the book of Ezra. In this account, Ezra, a scribe who has recently returned to Jerusalem from exile in Persia, learns that in the absence of appropriate teaching and oversight, the Jews have begun to practice mixed marriage. Jewish men have joined themselves to the women of the nations around them.
Ezra is appalled. As he points out in Ezra 9:6-15, this is a clear contravention of God’s laws forbidding marriage outside the bounds of God’s people. This kind of sin is what got the Jews exiled in the first place. It’s why they continue under Persian bondage. If they continue in it, God may well remove them from the land forever.
The seriousness of the problem demands a stern remedy. In Ezra 10, Ezra and the people determine that the men in mixed marriages must put away their foreign wives. The Jews set up tribunals and dissolve every such marriage in a matter of months. This was no easy matter. After listing the offenders, Ezra 10:44 observes, “All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children.”
People 2500 years ago loved their families and children no less than we do, but they understood that the law of God left them no choice. If they were to remain God’s holy nation, they had to end all unholy marriages, regardless of who suffered as a result.
Today, the same thing is true for us. A Christian who wants to remain faithful cannot remain in a marriage that Jesus forbids, and the church that wants to remain faithful cannot tolerate the unlawfully married who insist on remaining together. If we veto the judgments of the Lord that we don’t like, He is no longer the head of the church. We have set ourselves up as its head instead. Either we are faithful in all things, or we are faithful in nothing. Ezra’s example is a difficult one to follow, but it’s the only path that leads to heaven.
I admit to being reassured by the apostle Paul’s use of sarcasm. As any student of Scripture knows, rather than being sweetly earnest all the time, Paul had a keen sense of irony, and he didn’t hesitate to deploy it for rhetorical effect. One of the most sarcastic passages in Paul’s writing appears in 1 Corinthians 4:8-13. Here, he compares the presumed spiritual accomplishments of the Corinthians to his own suffering for Christ’s sake. Particularly, in v. 10, he observes, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong, You are held in honor, but we in disrepute.”
The idea of being a fool for Christ is well worth unpacking. Of course, Paul isn’t speaking in spiritual terms here. He’s offering a world’s-eye-view, or, more precisely, a weak-Christian’s-eye-view, of the difference between him and the Corinthians. They had apparently managed to straddle the gap between Christ and the world, belonging to the former while remaining respectable in the eyes of the latter.
Paul, on the other hand, did all sorts of “foolish” things. He didn’t ask churches for money. He was loud about his faith even when he knew it would get him in trouble. He got kicked out of synagogues. He made such a nuisance of himself for Christ that he was constantly getting entangled in legal trouble or even run out of town. Paul was at war with the world, not on good terms with it, and the conflict constantly made his life more difficult. However, in God’s eyes, Paul, not the Corinthians, was on the right track.
Today, we must grapple with the possibility that unless we are willing to be fools for Christ’s sake, we might not be anythings for Christ’s sake. This is hard. Like the Corinthians, we want to be respectable, and it’s easy for Christians to fall into a respectable Chamber-of-Commerce kind of religion. We can be good solid citizens who go to church on Sunday, never do anything crazy, and leave everybody else alone.
The problem is, though, that Chamber-of-Commerce religion isn’t Christlike. It’s Christ-lite. Jesus was righteous, not respectable. The respectable elements of His society generally hated Him. He was loud. He caused too much trouble. He didn’t appreciate them the way they felt they should be appreciated. He demanded that people make dramatic changes in their lives for God’s sake. Ultimately, He picked too many fights with the wrong people and got nailed to a cross for it. “What a fool,” we can imagine them saying, shaking their heads sadly.
We need to be the same kind of fool. We need to be loud about Jesus and not shut up, even when others start thinking less of us for it. We need to be willing to do the right thing, even if society thinks we’re nuts for doing it. In short, we need to prove that this world is not our home by doing the things that the wise citizens of this world don’t do. Otherwise, we cannot foreclose the possibility that rather than using Jesus’ playbook, we’re merely using the playbook of the worldly wise.
Since the rise of Internet pornography, much has been made about how easy it is to be a secret sinner these days. That’s true, but in many other ways, keeping sin secret has become much harder. I was reminded of this by a couple of recent news stories.
In the first, a drunken woman’s racist rant was captured for all the world to see by her victim’s smartphone. In the second, another woman became entangled with a man who eventually murdered her because she had earlier allowed him to take compromising photos of her.
Of the two scenarios, the first is much more straightforward. Bad behavior that used to remain private now can go viral. 25 years ago, Susan Westwood would have faced no consequences for her outburst. Today, she lost her job less than 24 hours later, and the stigma of that recording will follow her for the rest of her life.
The take-home is pretty simple. Don’t get drunk. Don’t say mean, hateful things to people. If you do, the odds are that someone will use their smartphone to record you and wreck you. Those chickens will come home to roost in a big way.
Lauren McCluskey’s case is considerably more complex. I have the utmost sympathy for her, her family, and all who knew her. No one deserves to be the victim of sexual extortion and murder. She was not “asking for it”.
At the same time, though, we must not blind ourselves to the lessons we ought to learn from her tragic end. It is always risky and frequently sinful to take intimate photos/video of ourselves, or to allow others to take them of us. I don’t think it’s a sin for a husband and wife to send such things to each other, but all it takes is one nosy co-worker. Then, that unguarded phone or logged-in Facebook account can produce something that will haunt you for decades.
Of course, producing and sharing explicit photos/video outside of marriage is always wrong. It’s also much riskier. Marriage, though it often isn’t, is at least supposed to be for life. More casual relationships aren’t. With those, it doesn’t take a third party to expose you. You can be betrayed by your ex, your hookup partner, the unwilling recipient of your clumsy come-on, or even some stranger on the Internet who talked you into flashing them.
In fact, the momentum of our society makes this likely to occur. As the cynical saying goes, the Internet is for porn. When countless indecent pictures are already public, it seems reasonable to the possessor of an indecent picture of you to make it public too. Nor are worldly people likely to be deterred by the thought of the anguish it will cause you. In fact, they probably consider that part of the fun.
The spiritual consequences of sin always have been severe, but in this area, the physical consequences are quickly catching up. Because one moment of foolishness and evil can ruin us, we must be constantly on our guard. It may well be that the recording we don’t want anyone to see becomes the recording that everyone sees. As Paul points out in Ephesians 5:15-16, the days are evil. We had best walk carefully.
Can the prey of the mighty be taken
Or the slaves of the tyrant restored?
Yet in God none of these are forsaken,
That all flesh may acclaim Him as Lord.
He will lift up His hand to the nations,
And a sign will be raised in His name
So His sons will be borne to salvation
And His daughters, delivered from shame.
Thus the Lord by His manifold graces
From bereavement shall rescue the land;
In the waste and the desolate places,
There the throngs of His children will stand.
In the first part of the book of Ezra, we see an incredible thing. After 70 years of exile, the people of Judah are returning to Canaan. God had predicted this return through His prophets, but human wisdom would never have believed it possible.
After all, the Jewish nation was destroyed after repeated rebellions against the Babylonians. Because the kings of Judah refused to be good little vassals, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, destroyed it (including Solomon’s temple), and carried its people captive. Nations simply don’t come back from disasters like that, but the Jews did.
However, as the events of the first half of Ezra reveal, despite their return, all is not well in the promised land. Even though they have returned to Jerusalem, they are still subjects of the Persian Empire. The Persians have no trouble interfering with their lives, to the point of forbidding them to rebuild the temple for decades.
As a result, the fulfillment of God’s promises can only be described as incomplete. Yes, they’re back in the land, but they’re not free, and they certainly aren’t enjoying the golden age that prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah promised. Even hundreds of years later, during the time of Christ, righteous men like Simeon are still “waiting for the consolation of Israel”.
By then, the Jews have exchanged Persian overlords for Roman overlords, but their overall state of bondage has not changed. Even when God fulfills His prophecies through Jesus, many of His people find that fulfillment unacceptably alien. They are so set on a physical understanding of grace that rather than accepting their Messiah, they plunge instead into a doomed revolt against Rome.
Today, we have a much better understanding of Old-Testament prophecies than the Jews did, but it is still our experience that God has incompletely fulfilled His promises to us. Yes, we have life in Christ, but Christians still die. Yes, we have peace in Christ, but we live in a world that is filled with conflict and even persecution. Yes, Jesus is with us always, but no human eye has seen Him for 2000 years.
Like the Jews of the time of Zerubbabel, then, like Simeon, we are still looking for the consolation of Israel. We don’t believe that God has broken faith with us because we recognize that He never intended for us to enjoy the fullness of His blessings in this life. Pop Christianity to the contrary, we are not living our best life now, nor should we expect to. Indeed, if this were our best life, we would be of all people most to be pitied.
Our eyes are not fixed on the here-and-now. Instead, they are fixed on the future. We expectantly wait for the return of Jesus, not because we have already figured out how He will fulfill God’s promises to us, but because we trust that their fulfillment will be better than we imagine. In that day, finally, after thousands of years of waiting, will God’s people enjoy the fullness of His grace.