Whole-Life Discipleship #4 (Matthew 5:27-32)
By: Rubel Shelly

Have you begun to catch on to what Jesus was doing in his Sermon on the Mount? He is, on the one hand, challenging – even chiding – the notion that righteousness can be reduced to rule-keeping. In the words of a Spirit-guided interpreter of our Lord on this point: “No one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom. 3:20). He is, on the other hand, claiming to be the personified fulfillment of everything the Law and the Prophets anticipated in terms of the Kingdom of God, eternal life, and righteousness.

The basic mistake we have made across time has been to read this sermon as good Pharisees and to debate it as pedantic scribes. Jesus intended for his apprentices in kingdom living to discern a righteousness that “surpasses” (NIV) or “exceeds” (NRSV) that of the biblicists and seminary professors of his day. Yet we have been taught to read these three chapters from the Gospel of Matthew as the tightening up of laws already beyond anyone’s ability to follow without failure. And we have made the morally impossible into spiritual hopelessness.

Dallas Willard is correct when he writes:

We need to put the idea of laws entirely out of our minds. Jesus is working … at the much deeper level of the source of actions, good and bad. He is taking us deeper into the kind of beings we are, the kind of love God has for us, and the kind of love that, as we share it, brings us into harmony with his life. No one can be “right” in the kingdom sense who is not transformed at this level. And then, of course, the issue of not being wrongly angry, not expressing contempt, not calling people [fools], and so on is automatically taken care of.[1]
The purpose of every divine law – whether written on stone tablets or into the intuitive consciousness of every human being – has been to liberate people. God’s holy purpose is not to enslave his creatures with rules but to free us from the things that would keep us from loving one another. The way the Pharisees and scribes were using the Law of Moses was having the opposite effect of making people brittle, harsh, and judgmental with one another. They had turned law into an end in itself – more concerned for actions than attitudes, reputation than character, externals than internals. Jesus is calling us back to heaven’s original intent through this sermon. He is showing us the path to whole-heart, whole-life discipleship that reaches to the depths of our personalities and beings.

Male-Female Relationships

We have already seen Jesus use hyperbole to shock his audience into listening for something more than their traditional teachers had told them. So he said the commandment “Do not murder” actually means that getting angry with someone or using insulting language of him is sinful and puts you in danger of hell. We really shouldn’t be shocked now when he says that “Do not commit adultery” means that going to an Internet porn site makes you an adulterer and leaves you only one remedy for your depravity – gouging out your eyes! And we aren’t surprised to hear him say that anybody hard-hearted enough to divorce his wife makes both her and anybody who claims her in a subsequent marriage commit adultery.

We have used these verses to close the doors of the church – if not of the kingdom of heaven itself – to countless souls by reading them as the very things Jesus is trying to teach us they aren’t. These aren’t laws to govern a Christian view of divorce and remarriage. They aren’t the rules for deciding who can join a church or teach a Bible class. They are rhetorical overstatements designed to jolt us into hearing Jesus’ insight into the nature of real righteousness.

You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Matt. 5:27-30).
Do you remember the field day the American press had with President Jimmy Carter when he said he sometimes had been guilty of “adultery in [his] heart”? Newscasters read the report with a twisted grin on their mouths – as if either to make fun of anyone who thought lust was wrong or who would confess it publicly? Pundits made fun of a man who was the leader of the most powerful nation talking about such a petty, nit-picky, inconsequential issue.

That sort of reaction to the issue of lust (lit, leering looks) is pharisaical to the ultimate degree. It essentially holds that only “crossing the line” of sexual violation of another person is sinful. Anything up to that point is merely natural or expected or relatively innocent. That is not only pharisaical but sexist, not only legalistic with Scripture but demeaning to human dignity. And that is precisely the point Jesus was making. Anyone who has a transformed, born-from-above heart doesn’t see how close he or she can get to crossing the line but is horrified by even the slightest urge in the direction of crossing it.

At the start of the twenty-first century, we are a hard-hearted and perverse culture when it comes to human sexuality. We profess outrage at the alleged rape of a female athlete at the University of Colorado but turn a blind eye to the fact that our alma maters recruit high school football players with “hospitality girls” or entertain at time-outs and halftime with bump-and-grind routines that lecherous old men had to pay to watch in a seedy bar a generation ago. We decry the pornographic catalogs of Abercrombie & Fitch and go buy their merchandise. Parents feign disgust at the blatant sexuality of Brittney Spears and let their daughters imitate her wardrobe. If our children can be defended by virtue of their naivete, their parents can’t – especially their fathers.

There’s no law or dress code for church buildings that will correct things of this sort. Something has to happen in somebody’s heart. Parents have to want their children to be chaste above popular. A teen-aged boy or girl has to surrender to the Holy Spirit above peer pressure. A man living in this sex-saturated has to pray for a virtuous heart with integrity – and that doesn’t mean self-mutilation but may mean missing out on work-related or sports events with “friends” whose conversations are unholy. It could require a married man to end his friendship with a woman in his church that has gotten too close. A woman may be subjected to a hostile work environment or experience sexual harassment – and have to make waves in the company, file charges, or find a new job that pays less. These choices may feel like gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand, but they may also be necessary to maintain your spiritual integrity.

Ever hear of a basketball player being “out of position” on a play? Ever hear a coach yell for her to “move without the ball”? Some of us get out of position in our spiritual lives – and wind up compromised or embarrassed, sexually harassed or charged with the offense, pregnant or divorced. The right position for a child of God in these times of unhealthy male-female relationships is on our knees rather than online at a porn site, parents teaching children about respect for the opposite sex rather than how to bait them, and married men and women forming accountability relationships with godly persons of the same sex.

Jesus did not have a prudish attitude toward human sexuality. He did not say that our natural sexual impulses make us immoral or adulterers at heart. He is simply warning us that the joy, intimacy, and fulfillment God intends in our sexual lives is reserved to those who surrender that dimension of their lives to God. And he wants us to understand that the difference in the pornographer or rapist or adulterer is not just the criminal-ungodly deed but is also the lustful heart that indulges sinful fantasies. Those budding fantasies bear putrid fruit.

“Do not commit adultery” has been a law from time immemorial. In many cultures, it applied only to females for the sake of maintaining clear lines of paternity and inheritance. Males could frequent prostitutes or take mistresses, but females had to be chaste. And it isn’t even that Jesus was introducing something new relative to the issue of lust. The final of the Ten Commandments says: “Do not covet your neighbor’s wife.” Jesus was going above and beyond the demands of law to the reaction of a renewed heart to humanity’s historic abuse of women. Its perversion of sexuality. Its diminishment of human dignity by making sex into sport. One “crosses the line” of diminishing others not at the point of having sex with someone other than his or her marriage partner but when one’s heart separates personhood from intimacy, reduces another human being to body parts to ogle, fantasizes with “eyes full of adultery” (2 Pet. 2:14).

The Question of Divorce

Then, with the general topic of male-female relationships up for discussion, Jesus moved to the specific issue of divorce.

It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery (Matt. 5:31-32).
On a legalistic interpretation of these words from Jesus, Christian teachers and whole churches have adopted unjustifiably strict rules forbidding remarriage after divorce – while missing the real point of Jesus’ demand. The way we have used this text has often turned us into legalists who could out-Pharisee the most rigid of Pharisees! For example, the Anglican Church does not allow people to marry after a divorce. And that presented the late C.S. Lewis a problem in relation to the divorced American he loved, Joy Gresham. They had a private civil ceremony in April of 1956, but the blessing of their church was important to both of them.

Whether Lewis believed it necessary or simply conceded to the rules of the church, I don’t know. But he did something I have seen repeated many times in my own tradition. He found a legalistic loophole – and jumped through it!

Apparently, Lewis argued that because Bill Gresham had been married before he married Joy, and his first wife was still living, their marriage was not a true Christian marriage. An old pupil of Lewis, the Reverend Peter Bide, agreed and married them at Joy’s bedside at the Churchill Hospital at Oxford on April 21, 1957.[2]
Anyone who has divorced and married again is really married – not “living in adultery” or “still married to her first husband in God’s eyes.” A civil divorce terminates a marriage. And anyone who is not married has the civil and divine right to get married. This is what the Word of God says at Deuteronomy 24:1ff.[3] And Jesus didn’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets – only to explain and model their fulfillment.

The idea that a woman would sin to divorce a man who beats her – so long as he hasn’t crossed the line of sleeping with someone else – is preposterous. The idea that a man who reluctantly divorces a woman who is a chronic alcoholic or drug-abuser who neglects and endangers their children is offending God is absurd. Or perhaps your position is that such persons could divorce, but they have to remain single and celibate after that divorce – or be labeled adulterers. That is not what Scripture teaches. And the use of the Bible to keep people in such unholy relationships has done untold spiritual harm to adults and children.

Perhaps we get into trouble here because we don’t really know the background in Torah to the discussion of divorce. Moses did not originate divorce. To the contrary, the hardness of men’s hearts toward their wives initiated divorce long before the days of Moses (cf. Matt. 19:8). And it wasn’t so much that hard-hearted men wanted to divorce their wives as that men were so hard-hearted toward women that they killed or abused or simply discarded wives as we would throw away a piece of worthless property. The Old Testament initiated a procedure for divorce under which a woman was to be treated as a person, not property. When a man divorced his wife, he had to give her a written certificate of divorce that removed all question that she was free of marital obligation.

The specific purpose of that document of divorce was to certify her as someone eligible to marry. Contrary to other statutes we know from that period, her first husband couldn’t “change his mind” a few months or years later and disrupt her life – and that of her second husband and their children – by reclaiming her as “property” under law. In other words, the Law of Moses assumed both the reality of divorce and the right – if not the necessity for women especially – to marry again. It would seem strange if the law through Moses showed more grace to divorcees than the grace and truth that came through Jesus, wouldn’t it?

But the discussion of marriage only for the sake of setting the rules for who can divorce and remarry is Pharisaic. Jesus made it clear to his disciples that they should think of marriage in terms of commitment, love, and permanence. So when they approached him with their divorce and remarriage questions, his response was to refer to God’s original plan for marriage (cf. Matt. 19:1-12). That is his strategy here, for righteousness is ultimately about loving relationships. And anyone who would carelessly toss aside another human being and walk away from his marital covenant reveals an unredeemed heart. That Jesus is not judging his deed under law should be obvious here, for he doesn’t speak of the initiator of the divorce as sinning but speaks instead of everyone else implicated in the larger scenario. He causes the woman he tosses aside to become an adulteress. He even makes the man who claims her commit adultery – not in the technical, legal sense but in terms of the spiritual chaos his unholy deed launches. Nobody with a Spirit-filled, transformed heart treats other human beings that way. He is concerned instead to honor God by making all the relationships of his life holy.

Myra and I were in Phoenix, Arizona, for most of this week. We stopped at an intersection for a traffic light and read the following billboard ad: “When ‘until death do you part’ is taking too long … from $169” and gave the phone number for a firm that specializes in divorce and bankruptcies! It is to that spirit of embracing divorce over salvaging families that Jesus was speaking here.

In the same hyperbolic language with which he had already said hatred is murder and leering looks are adultery, he now says that divorce and remarriage is adultery. Not under civil law! Not even under biblical law! But to hearts born from above and tender to the spiritual nature of every aspect of life, divorce is hateful. Since God hates it (Mal. 2:13-16), anyone with God’s heart in her hates it too. I am not married to Myra until my needs and wants change. She is not married to me until her growth as a human being outstrips mine and she needs someone more suited to her newly discovered personality. We are married to each other for the sake of giving God glory and pleasure – not only in what we do but in who we help each other to become in Christ. Our love for God binds us to each other.

My wife is my closest spiritual partner for Christian life and ministry. She is going to have more to do with my heart and destiny than anyone in this world. More than John York. More than Terry Smith. More than my mother and father. More than the three wonderful children God has given us. We have covenanted with each other as life partners to help each other live as apprentices to Jesus. The greatest assurance either of us has about the other is what we know of the other’s love for God. And the idea that either of us could walk away from that sort of covenanted life we have been living for forty years is preposterous. Monstrous. Adulterous! It won’t happen.

Some people have made covenant promises in good faith, only to be betrayed by a man or woman who broke faith through sexual infidelity. Now that is adultery – full-blown adultery, adultery beyond Jimmy Carter’s adultery of the heart. And it justifies that person’s partner getting a divorce – although it does not demand it! Love holds out the prospect of forgiving and healing even the worst of sinful blunders.

Other people violate their covenant promise of marriage with alcoholism, physical abuse, or any number of other destructive behaviors. When they do so, they increase the likelihood that some aggrieved soul is going to divorce them and go on with his or her life without them. If that happens, the divorce proceeding in court is not the real evil. What is evil is the breakdown of a relationship – now merely formalized in divorce papers. And perhaps they will marry again. They have the right to do so. Yet they will have gone through the heartache of failure and pain and divorce. They will introduce chaos into their lives and into the lives of any children involved. Jesus would spare his disciples all these agonies.

There are some people who will simply be too immature to choose a marriage partner or who will choose poorly or who will gradually allow what could have been healthy die from neglect. Their marriages will end. They and their children will grief. Suffer. Eventually re-engage with life – and move on. Perhaps to another relationship that is better, or not, or worse. Then some of these people will encounter the gospel. And the gospel’s message to them is not that someone must check your marital status before you are baptized. Or intrude into your past failure or immaturity or immorality. The gospel speaks heaven’s word of pardon over a past now repented and urges that the present and future be lived by the empowerment of the Spirit of God. In forgiveness of others – and self. In faithfulness to God – and the person with whom your life is covenanted now. In joyful growth and obedience and service to God who redeems us.


In this sermon, Jesus invites us into a view of male-female relationships that is radical for any time and place. He asks us to affirm our gendered identity as males and females. He affirms not only the attraction of but also the appropriateness of human sexuality. He sees marital commitment as the ultimate form of human intimacy and as the holy setting for joyous sexual sharing with one’s covenanted partner. And anything that dehumanizes our sexual identity – vulgar language, dirty jokes, sexual objectification, pornography, leering stares – is offensive to God and damaging to our best interests. In particular, the reckless enthusiasm some people have for solving their marital problems by divorce is folly of the first order – subjecting all parties involved to damage that may never be undone or overcome.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, chastity and holiness are gifts to the children of God. By the presence of Christ, marriages are made holy to God. What law could not accomplish, God-presence makes real. Adultery becomes unthinkable – not because of one’s fear of sin and judgment and hell but – because renewed hearts seek and live renewed lives and renewed relationships.

By grace, people who have failed at marriage and divorced for the worst and most trivial of reasons are redeemed from guilt. People who destroyed marriages by adultery can be pardoned. People whose hearts and behaviors have been cold, hard, and unfeeling can be made whole. And it is forgiveness and renewal from above – not another divorce, not celibacy, and not unscrambling the eggs of harm already done – that does so. What law cannot create, transformation does. What law cannot undo, Christ’s blood forgives. What our legal gymnastics has confused, the redemptive presence of the Holy Spirit sanctifies. Thank God for righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and scribes.

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), pp.154-155
[2] Armand M. Nicholi Jr., The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life (New York: Free Press, 2002), p.157.
[3] It is interesting that the one thing a legalistic reading of Jesus’ words offers to set things right following a divorce (i.e., remarriage to the original partner) is the action explicitly prohibited at Deut. 24:4.