When God’s Word comes to us, his commands don’t function to only condemn us. His Word speaks of the redemption that he has provided for our deepest failings—he provides a way out. Jesus' teachings on marriage radically altered its meaning and purpose from the common assumptions of his day. He did this by stepping into a conversation on adultery and divorce.
You shall not commit adultery. – Exodus 20:14
Christ unpacks this commandment in Matthew 5:27–32 and 19:1–12. He not only provides redemption from condemnation but also points us to the way we are now enabled to live. Jesus teaches us six realities about marriage and God's purpose through the seventh commandment.
1. Jesus points us to the purpose of creation.
In Jesus’ interpretation of this commandment, he points us to the original marriage that God established, creating man and woman for each other in perfect peace and harmony. They found their fulfillment and happiness in each other in their service to God. Yet, in their sin against God, they threw everything into disarray, even the sacred marriage and the sexuality in which God placed them.
Marriage isn't just about children or about self-fulfillment. Here we see marriage is about glorifying God and serving others through self-denial. This is the deepest purpose of creation itself.
When Adam and Eve sought their own pleasure and glory, they instantly put their marital relationship in jeopardy, introducing fear and accusation. In this original sin, we find the root of adultery and all sexual sin. Against the backdrop and goodness of creation, Jesus highlights the gravity of the sin of adultery that distorts the most intimate relationships we have as humans. When we fail to die to ourselves and seek the glory of God and the other person's good, we undermine the purpose of marriage and sexuality.
2. Jesus teaches us about the true nature of our sin.
When confronting us with our sin, Jesus speaks to the heart, digging below the surface. But he does so by showing the full weight of the law's requirements. Jesus makes a shocking statement: we must have a righteousness that exceeds that of the holy men of his time:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:20)
The people thought that this law could easily be obeyed. If they did not touch a woman or actually commit adultery with her, they believed themselves to be without guilt, but Christ shows us that the seventh commandment includes so much more.
It requires the preservation of our own and our neighbor's purity, in heart, speech, and behavior. It forbids all immoral thoughts, words, and actions. Not a single thought leading to lust should pass through our minds. If it does, we are guilty of committing adultery before God.
What is Jesus' point? His point is simple: no one escapes the law's condemnation. Our biggest problem in marriage (and in all of life) before God and each other is our own sin.
3. Jesus shows us that divorce is not what God desires.
Jesus also tells us that although the law of Moses provided a way for divorce, this was not the true path of godliness for which God designed us. Divorce was temporarily allowed because of the hardness of our hearts. Divorce, except in extreme cases, is wrong and undermines the purpose of marriage.
We see this when Jesus raises the stakes even higher. He tells us that anyone who divorces their spouse, except on the account of sexual immorality, commits adultery and therefore cannot come into God’s presence.
Sin so twists our hearts that we learn to condemn others but cannot see our own immoral thoughts as they truly are. Our hearts are bent towards being unforgiving. We are selfish in such a way that we cannot see our own sin. Some older writers called this the “sinfulness of sin.” If we have a quarrel with our spouse, we quickly shift the blame like Adam did to Eve. This distrust is now our default setting as sinful people, yet Jesus does not leave us here.
4. Jesus provides the way of forgiveness.
Jesus pronounces the true intent of God's law to drive us from ourselves to his side. The Lord himself provides his righteousness to us by which we are forgiven. He provides that righteousness that we need to see God. Though we sin against him and those made in his image, Jesus takes these sins on his shoulders as if he committed them, though he was perfect.
He takes our sins and cleanses us with his love, purifying us and giving us his holiness that exceeds all the deeds of mere men. In so doing, our Lord shows how, even in a fallen world, something as evil as adultery and sexual sin can be forgiven in the death of Jesus for our sins. There is no sin that cannot be forgiven by the Savior, even sins within a marriage.
5. Jesus transfers us into his kingdom of love.
The newness of the kingdom that Jesus brings in Matthew 19 is the ability to remain with one’s spouse and not to seek a divorce. We are now enabled to think God's thoughts after him. While Moses’ law allowed many grounds for divorce, it never gave the ability to become pure and holy after sinning, which is why it provided a way out of marriage. The law could never produce from sinners the righteousness God requires. The law cannot change us into becoming forgiving people.
As God in flesh, Jesus does what the law could never do in us, and he forgives you and me of our spiritual and actual adultery. The Lord goes even further, calling us and enabling us to forgive each other because of his Spirit. Love can truly cover a multitude of sins. Reconciliation with God and with each other can now happen in this most intimate of relationships.
Even though it may seem impossible to let go of such a sin committed against us, Jesus went to his death to give us this reality. His love is now the air we breathe. We are now freed for the first time to forgive others for something as destructive as sexual sin, adultery, or wrongful divorce, just as God in Christ forgave us.
6. Jesus reestablishes marriage for our good.
Jesus provides the means in this life to flee immorality, lust, and adultery through the marriage of one man to one woman. The Lord does not take this institution away but rather shows how grace triumphs over sinfulness. Christ first shows us how far sin enters our hearts, how deep the river of sin runs, but then shows how we are redeemed. We are made in his image, specifically created for this marriage covenant. God renews us by giving us forgiving hearts.
Now, this doesn't mean there aren't certain cases in which divorce is necessary (e.g., abusive relationships, physical harm). But forgiveness should always be given, even when reconciliation is not possible. This is the newness of Christ's kingdom, loving our enemies with unmerited favor.
Jesus does not discuss the seventh commandment as a legalistic duty. Rather, he puts the commandment in the context of creation and the original purpose of marriage. His free forgiveness instructs us concerning this commandment’s meaning, not only in regard to our own human relationships but also in our relationship with our Creator.
God has forgiven us of our spiritual adultery of leaving him and following our own pleasures, and we are now called to do likewise. Jesus has begun this special work in us, forgiving the unforgivable in sinners. He overcomes our sexual sins by giving us back to God and, therefore, to each other.
Jesus radically altered the meaning and purpose of marriage in his day which sent shockwaves throughout history. What would happen today if our marriages and relationships were infused with this gospel-focus? It too would shock the world.