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.
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.
Acts 16:13 describes one of the humblest locations in which Paul ever preaches the gospel to a group of people. He and his companions have come to the city of Philippi, a Roman colony. Probably because of its largely Gentile composition, Philippi doesn’t have a synagogue, so those who wish to worship the God of Israel on the Sabbath must do so by the bank of the River Gangites. There, Paul proclaims Christ and makes his first converts in Europe.
Though picturesque, this riparian setting is only one of many places where we see Christians assembling in Acts. They honor God in the upper rooms of houses (Acts 1:13), a portico of the temple (5:13), synagogues (13:14), the marketplace (17:17), a stony hilltop (17:17), a lecture hall (19:10), a beach (21:5), the deck of a ship (27:35), and rented quarters (28:28). The most specific inference that we can draw from this is that early disciples met together whenever and however they could. In this area, the New-Testament pattern appears to be “Whatever works”.
This observation becomes relevant in our discussions of Bible authority with others. If we criticize some use of church funds as unauthorized, frequently, someone will fire back with the reply, “Well, what about church buildings???” Of course, none of these people really have any problem with church buildings. Instead, their goal is to establish that we are inconsistent in our adherence to the first-century pattern.
I see two problems with this argument. First, as noted above, there is no discernible pattern with respect to the meeting places of first-century Christians, and not even a discernible pattern when it comes to spending money on meeting places. The riverbank was free. The school of Tyrannus probably wasn’t (at least, churches today that meet in schools generally have to pay for the privilege). Paul’s rented quarters weren’t; indeed, they were paid for by support from churches.
The synagogues weren’t free either, rather being built and maintained by the Jews of the community. Did the people of Iconium who believed in Acts 14:1 stop showing up at the synagogue the next week because it was A Misuse Of The Lord’s Money? Instead, throughout Acts, we see brethren taking advantage of purpose-built meeting places as long as they can.
Second, as per Hebrews 10:25, assembling is part of the work of the church. How can we do this? The Jerusalem church could meet in the massive colonnades of the temple for free; but the Jackson Heights church can’t even meet in a pavilion in a city park without paying for it. No member of the congregation owns a house where even half of us can gather. Either we spend money on meeting, or we become, quite literally, fair-weather Christians. Under these circumstances, the use of the Lord’s money to ensure that we can come together and build one another up every first day of the week is entirely appropriate.
Psalm 44 (LMD)
O God, our fathers told Your works;
You planted them within the land;
They did not conquer by the sword,
But by Your favor and Your hand.
Today You still push back our foes
And keep Your holy ones from shame;
Thus we have boasted all day long,
And we will always bless Your name.
But now You have rejected us,
And You have made our hosts retreat;
You scatter us to foreign lands
And sell us cheaply in defeat.
You let our neighbors scoff at us;
You make the nations laugh to see;
All day I hide my face in shame
Before the boastful enemy.
Yet we have not forgotten You
Nor with transgression sought our doom;
Although our steps were in Your ways,
You covered us with deathly gloom.
If we had sought another god,
The God who searches hearts would know,
But for Your sake Your own are slain;
All day Your sheep are slaughtered so.
O Lord, awake! Why do You sleep?
Do not reject us in disgrace;
Before our grief and misery
Why do You still conceal Your face?
Our soul has fallen to the dust,
And to the earth we press our face;
Rise up and be our help, O God;
Redeem us in Your faithful grace.
Suggested tune: “Lamb of God”
Hebrews 2:1 contains one of the most sobering warnings in the entire Bible: “For this reason, we must pay attention all the more to what we have heard, so that we will not drift away.” A couple of verses later, the writer uses a rhetorical question to make the point that if we neglect the great salvation we have been given, we will not escape. Nobody turns their back on Jesus and gets away with it!
This is deeply relevant to us for a couple of different reasons. First, it shows that falling away is possible. This truth is bound up in the very language of the text. It is impossible to drift away from a place where you aren’t, and it’s impossible to neglect a salvation you don’t have. Those who teach, then, that true Christians can’t fall away are misguided. We can be in a state of grace now and fall from it later.
Of course, this concept is significant not merely in an abstract, doctrinal sense, but in a personal, concrete sense. I can fall away. You can fall away. The godliest Christian any of us know, the distinguished preacher, the elder of the church, or the devout widow, all of these can fall away.
The fault here is not in Jesus. He has promised that no one will snatch us out of His hand. We are immune to danger from outside forces, but we are not immune to danger from within. We can willingly abandon the safety from which no one can remove us. Indeed, unless we acknowledge the risk and humbly resolve to remain faithful, we infallibly will bring this disaster upon ourselves.
Second, the writer’s word choice also tells us how disaster will arrive. Drifting away is not a sudden, violent activity. Instead, it happens gradually, slowly, wavelet by wavelet.
Neither is neglect. Neglect is the result of failing to make an effort when the need to act doesn’t seem pressing or important. The lawn doesn’t look much worse today than it looked yesterday, it’s hot out there, and I’d rather spend my Saturday in the woods than behind a lawnmower anyway. However, if I continue to defer exertion, soon the front door is covered in nastygrams from the HOA, and they’re filming episodes of Tarzan in my front yard!
Spiritual disaster advances upon us in the same slow, subtle way. It is the fruit of coming home from a long day of work on Wednesday and deciding that it’s too much effort to round up the kids and get everybody out to Bible class. It is the result of closing our eyes metaphorically to the trashy side of that TV show we love to watch—but not closing them literally. It is the outcome of a thousand tiny enticements to depart from Jesus in a way that still seems safe. Nobody’s going to lose their soul over a Wednesday night or a Netflix drama, are they?
The problem is, though, that the more we draw away, the more reasonable extreme departures become. Maybe a steamy period romance isn’t that far away from godliness, but neither is pornography that far away from steamy romances, nor an affair from porn. It’s extremely easy for us to find ourselves in a spiritual position where we never intended to be. The only way to make sure that we don’t drift away is to make sure that we don’t drift.