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Lust, Adultery And Divorce

by Ian Coker

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time,
Thou shalt not commit adultery:
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to
lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his own heart.
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee:
for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish,
and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee:
for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish,
and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
It hath been said, Whosoever shall out away his wife,
let him give her a writing of divorcement:
But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife,
saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery:
and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."

Matthew 5: 27-32

Our approach to Scripture is so important. I'm not talking about the question of inspiration, vital as that is. And neither am I speaking of the question of hermeneutics, equally as vital. I am speaking of the question of attitude. Attitude is written all over Matt.5:20 where Jesus tells us that our righteousness is to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. The remainder of Chapter 5 is comprised of five examples illustrating what He means. Each of these examples is prefaced by the scribal interpretations of Scripture handed down to the people (vs. 21,27,33,38,43 - 'you have heard that it was said. . .')

There was no attempt on the part of the Pharisees to burn the Bible - they quoted it. They quoted the same passages as Jesus, but they ended up with a behaviour that fell far short of what God intended. Why? It was a question of attitude - the same Scriptures but differing attitudes.

W.C. Fields was once caught reading the Bible. Since he was not the sort of man who normally read the Bible he was asked why. "I'm looking for loopholes" he quipped. Behind "thou shalt not kill" lies an attitude that will eliminate murder - "love your neighbour as yourself". Behind "thou shalt not commit adultery" lies an attitude that will foster the preservation and enhancement of marriage and the home (Matt.5: 28-30).

I am often overcome by the feeling in discussing the various questions relating to marriage and divorce that there is an essential element missing. It may not be exactly "looking for loopholes", but just as surely it is the case that the treatment of the laws pertaining to divorce and remarriage by some is akin to the style of a Philadelphia lawyer or a Pharisee. That is, the laws of God are treated as cold, simplistic, mathematical laws without due regard to the basic godly attitude that ought to lie behind them.

I'm not opposed to logic (there are only 2 possibilities - to be logical or illogical), but behind the laws of God lies not only the logical intelligent mind of God, but the right heart of that same loving, compassionate, merciful, righteous, fair, wise God. And we are to have His heart, not just His rational deductive powers.

As an example, I have discussed with several brethren the question of the "right" of the "guilty party" (i.e. the one put away for adultery) to remarry. A popular argument runs along these lines - since the innocent party can remarry then that must mean the marriage is over and thus the guilty party is single and therefore free to remarry. If we were dealing with a mathematical equation here I think I might be inclined to rationalise that way, but the problem here is the same problem that Jesus is countering in these examples of Pharisaical approaches to Scripture. We must recognize that God is interested in the heart of man, and His laws are addressed to the heart of man as well as the deductive component of his faculties. So, quite apart from the fact no authority is given to the guilty party to remarry, contrary to that of the innocent, we need to inject into the discussion the question of whether God really intended to treat the innocent and guilty as both deserving of equal rights. Bear in mind the adulterer under Moses' law was put to death.

Getting back to the text, Jesus draws our attention to a law common to every dispensation - "do not commit adultery". Then He reminds us that behind every outward action there is a precipitatory attitude or mindset. The Pharisaical approach was that if they did not commit the act itself, the commandment had no condemnatory message for them and they were justified before God. They should have contemplated what the tenth commandment covered when it said "you shall not covet your neighbour's wife".

What then is adultery? It is most commonly used to refer to illicit sexual behaviour by one who is married - that is, it is the sexual violation of a marriage covenant. But the Hebrew word 'naaph' is an old word and has a broader range than that. Evidence can be seen by observing;
       1. Matt.5: 28 - is this possible only by married people?
       2. Matt.5: 32 - swap 'adultery' with 'fornication' and you will notice that for all practical purposes they are synonymous
       3. Matt.19: 20 - 'all these have I kept from my youth' - the young man was not suggesting that he fornicated with single but not married women.
I say that to say this - this teaching is broad enough to cover the married and the single. Since God has reserved sexual relations for within the confines of the marriage covenant, the pertinent factors that relate to the abuse and misuse of sex apply to both the married and single alike.

The bare command to refrain from illicit sexual action requires an attitude that precedes it - an attitude that results in one keeping the law in spirit and in letter. A faulty attitude will result in one breaking it in spirit or letter or both. Some never commit adultery simply because they lack opportunity! But as anger precedes murder, so lust precedes adultery. Lust can have a neutral usage (cf. Deut. 12: 15,20,21) but most commonly it refers to illicit desire.

The Pharisees had a problem with lust, particularly being willingly ignorant of its role in behaviour (cf. Luke 16: 14; Rom. 7:7. Josephus [a Pharisee], comments "for the purposing to do a thing but not actually doing it, is not worthy of punishment [before God - I.H.C.]"). Yet it is evident from the Old Testament that the thoughts and intents of the heart are vital to the life of righteousness (cf. Job 31: 1; Psalm 19: 14; 51: 10; Prov. 6: 25; 23: 31).

We may well ask what causes lust:
1. It has to do with how we are made - we are creatures of flesh and blood and this flesh and blood has
desires (both men and women).
2. It has to do with the fact we live in a society hooked on sex. (movies, pornography, music, immodest apparel, social customs such as dancing, dating habits etc.)
3. It has to do with lack of self discipline (2 Pet. 2: 14)

What then do we do about it? A Pharisaical approach may well be something like this : "That's impossible as long as we have eyes - its not our fault its the way God made us". They would try and shield the heart with the eyes. Jesus won't have a bar of it and in effect says, "Well, if your eye is a problem, pluck it out!" Of course it is evident that Jesus is not to be taken literally since if you plucked out your right eye wouldn't the left eye have the same problem?

What then does Jesus mean? He means that sin is serious (cf. v.22,29,30): it required the death of God's Son, and the destiny of the soul is a far more weighty consideration than the welfare of the body (Matt. 10: 28; 16: 26). Therefore, whatever it takes, whatever the cost, cease from sin. So we must train our souls to hate sin (Psalm 97: 10). We are in a war (Rom. 8: 13; Col. 3: 5) and it is easier to fight in a war if you hate the enemy.

So, we must not pander to the lusts of the flesh (1 Cor. 9:27) We must realise the weakness of the flesh and blood and how easy it is for the Devil to use fleshly lusts to gain victories over us as he did over our forefathers in the Garden. Rom. 13:4 - its not clever to tip-toe on the top rail of a protective fence on a cliff-edge. And you do not put out a fire by pouring kerosene on it. So;
        1. avoid smutty talking and jesting
        2. avoid reading salacious material;
        3. avoid viewing salacious material
Do this and this will help you avoid thinking lustfully (cf. Mark 7: 21; Phil.4: 8).

Whether vs.31,32 constitute a separate example is a moot point. Certainly these verses are connected with vs 27-30. The facts show that a high proportion of our problems with marriage breakdown and breakup is caused by lust and a huge proportion of the adulterous relationships in our society are the result of ignorance of the laws of God. Legion are those who think that a marriage ceremony automatically legitimises any union. Other legalistic chicanery is seen when men try to get around the laws of God by practising the annulling of the first marriage.

What was the focus of the Pharisee with respect to marriage law? The insistence on obeying the command to give a writing of divorcement to the woman they were putting away! Where was this found? Deut. 24: 1. They argued about what "some uncleanness" was. Some 1500 years later they were still arguing about it, the school of Hillel saying it could be anything displeasing to the husband (or even seeing another woman he wanted), while the school of Shammai said it was restricted to things approaching adultery (adultery itself was punishable by death).

That argument will never end since the nature of the expression, whether in Hebrew or Greek, is so general. Why didn't God make it clear? He didn't have to, for this was not a law advocating divorce, but a law prescribing action after divorce has occurred. Matt.19: 8 shows that this law was given because of the hardness of their hearts. Why do men divorce their wives? - because they find something displeasing in their wife.

But they camped in Deut 24: 1 when in reality it was only 1 verse of a law that ran through to v.4. Note v.4 - a man cannot remarry his divorced wife even if the second husband is dead (v.3). Why? - she is "defiled" as far as the first husband is concerned. How can that expression be used of the woman is the first marriage is perfectly nullified by the divorce? The fact it that God was trying to teach them something about marriage and divorce even while tolerating its abuse.

And when you allow a perfect design to be abused, repercussions follow. When a man divorced his wife for some reason and she married another, it caused her to be defiled (cf. Num. 5: 13,20,27,29 etc). Why wasn't she put to death? Because she had been forced into it by the man. If God would allow the man to divorce because of the hardness of the man's heart, He correspondingly allowed the woman to remarry to survive. He protected her by allowing her to marry another and the writing of divorcement protected her against the charge of adultery.

So Deut. 24: 1-4 taught every man that availed himself of the "right" to divorce his wife that he was causing her to be defiled. That should have told them something about the nature of marriage - that God was tolerating something He didn't want. But the law which taught that divorce caused defilement was actually selectively used by the Pharisees as a right to divorce! They missed it altogether because of the hardness of their hearts. And God told them, "I hate divorce"! (Mal.2: 14-16)

So take away the toleration for hardness of heart and what do you have? - what is said in v.32. This is the way it is in actuality.
      1. The man who thinks he has fulfilled the law by providing the "writing of divorcement" has missed it altogether - he's not doing the right thing by her at all! He's causing her to be defiled! He's causing her to commit adultery!
      2. And as far as the second husband is concerned, the writing of divorcement did not put him in the clear but actually led him into adultery as well.
      3. The man who puts away his wife for adultery does not make her an adulteress - she has made herself one!

Jesus Christ came to restore righteous living. There is no room for hardness of heart when we stand in full view of what God has provided for us in Christ. John the Baptist came to soften hearts (Mal.4: 5,6 Matt.3: 1), and Jesus did like wise (Matt.4: 17). Whilst God may have tolerated certain things in times past He now commands all men everywhere to repent, and that includes the errors of lust, marriage and divorce (Acts 17: 30,31).


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