Marriage is a beautiful thing. We celebrate with those who get engaged. We smile as they take their vows. We shower them with gifts and well wishes for a long and happy marriage. But after the gifts are well-worn (or returned) and the top layer of cake has freezer burn, marriage gets real. Squabbles. Mistrust. Brokenness. These are real issues. How do we think rightly about marriage when there is often so much pain and brokenness surrounding the marital covenant? Two questions have come in regarding brokenness in marriage as seen in Scripture. Although they are different questions (and cite different Scriptures—one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament), they have some similar underlying issues. In light of this, we'll deal with both of them in a single post. We'll attempt to answer each briefly and then consider some underlying principles they both seem to share.
The first question:
(Regarding Jacob marrying both Leah and Rachel in Genesis 29) Was this before the covenant of single marriage? Was this before the command (not to commit adultery) or was this technically not adultery since he (Jacob) was deceived?
No. The covenant of single marriage was from the very beginning (Genesis 2).
Yes. It was before the command not to commit adultery (Exodus 20:14).
No. This was very much adultery. Just because it was before the giving of the law does not take away the fact that it was adultery (and wrong). An example would be if you have a cancerous tumor but don’t ever see it until the MRI. You’ve had the tumor the whole time, but only after the MRI do you see that it’s there. It's the same with sin and the law.
On the other hand, we must remember that Jacob is not guilty of sin just because of the fact he commits adultery. He’s guilty because, through Adam, sin and death spread to all men. Jacob is guilty of (and condemned by) sin even if he marries one woman and is considered the most morally upstanding man of his time.
The second question:
Does Matthew 5:31-32 lead us to believe divorce is to be viewed on the same level as homosexuality or couples living together who are not married? How are we to view divorced and remarried families? Do the verses lead us to believe second marriages are never okay in God's sight unless death or sexual immorality is a factor?
Divorce. Homosexuality. The one who looks at another with lust. They're all sin. Jesus takes what we think we’re good at (avoiding big sins and writing off smaller ones, thus creating hierarchies where we feel better because we’re not *completely awful* sinners, just regular sinners) and demolishes it by saying that none of us gets off the hook for any guilt. None of us is righteous. And none of us more unrighteous than anyone else.
We are to view those families the same way we view ourselves or anyone else, as sinners in need of grace. There are no worse sinners. There are none who need less grace than others. And we love as we’ve been loved.
Second marriages, while the spouses are still alive, seem to be wrong. There is always the possibility of repentance and restitution. We never know how God is working on another person to break the chains of sin and give him or her a desire to repent and make restitution. However, in the instance that vows are taken and a second marriage is entered into, to seek divorce at that point would be wrong. What is needed at that point is confession and repentance within the marriage.
With that said, here are some things that help fill out how we should think through marriage and marital issues:
The design, by God, for marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman.
Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:24)
This verse makes clear that it is a man (singular) holding fast to his wife (singular), and the two become one flesh. Here we have two people involved in marriage. Additionally, when it explains whom the man is leaving, it is his father and mother (two people—a man and a woman, one union). This is also before the Fall, which means that marriage, from the beginning, has been a foundational institution of all human flourishing. In other words the design of marriage was not a reaction on God’s part to something that we as people just couldn’t seem to get right. It was the standard from the beginning.
We did not ease into sin after the Fall.
When Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate of the fruit, sin entered all humanity. This sin brought about guilt and condemnation for every person. It was instant. The entirety of the human race was affected. The effects of the Fall did not gradually appear; they were instantly seen and felt, and they were catastrophic. Murder, adultery, greed, and strife spiraled out from the Fall with intensity, and every relationship was affected. Marriages were no exception. They were broken and all manner of sin was present within them. This includes Abraham and Isaac lying about their wives instead of protecting them as honorable men should, it includes Jacob taking two wives (and having sex with their maidservants), and it even includes the later practice of divorce given through Moses. All are different forms of broken marriages.
Jesus illuminates how sinful we really are, and we’re all the same kind of guilty.
In Matthew 5 (part of what is known as the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus is taking us through things we think we’re not guilty of, and showing us how we’re guilty. You think you’ve never murdered. Anger is the same thing (v. 22). You think you’ve never committed adultery. Lust is adultery (v. 28). Divorce and remarriage is adultery (v. 32). He’s walking straight down our lists of accolades that we’ve built up for ourselves of certain things we’ve avoided, and he’s showing us how we’ve never avoided them at all. In effect, he’s ripping up our list and inviting us to be devastated at our own state of sinfulness in such a way that we have nowhere else to turn but to him. When we realize exactly what he’s saying, then it becomes all the more inviting that there he stands as the one who has fulfilled the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17). He’s the only one who’s lived perfectly. Jesus is doing us a favor by showing us how sinful we really are, because unless he shows us this, we will continue to think we are doing just fine on our own, and we’ll have no need to trust Him.
Marriage is ultimately a reflection of Christ and His Bride, the Church.
Human marriage is not ultimate. We are not born married. After we die we're not married. It’s a covenant we make some time in the course of this life (or not at all). While marriage is a temporary thing, it does picture something greater—something that does last. It’s a small sampling, in this life, of Jesus and those (from all time and all ages) who are in a covenant relationship with him, namely the Church (His bride). This is key to understand because it will free us up to realize that every marriage, though a picture of the marriage of Christ and His Church, is at best a poor picture of this grand reality. Marriage is certainly a gift and is thoroughly enjoyable and is good in God’s eyes, but, like everything else we experience here, it is broken in some way. This brokenness, however, is not to lead us to despair. Instead, let's let it lead us to worship. Let it make us see Him with a little more glory, love Him with a little more gratitude, hope with a little more optimism, and worship with a little more awe.