Jesus Is More Than a Marriage Ref

When we read Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-9 (or Mark 10:1-12), it’s easy to get bogged down in the details of who can get divorced for what reason. I did that extensively once—I wrote a position paper on divorce in seminary. But I think in the context of what Matthew (and Mark, of course) is doing in his Gospel, this passage goes beyond petty details. After all, the major Pharisaical schools of thought liked to quibble over details. That was their speciality.

But Jesus is more than a marriage ref. He is attacking the very heart of Pharisaism. That’s one of Matthew’s goals throughout the gospels. Look at what Jesus does.

After some Pharisees ask about what constitutes a legitimate divorce (v. 3), Jesus starts by saying, “Have you not read?” Jesus challenges them on the authority of the Scriptures. Haven’t you ever read what God said? Of course they’ve read it. They have it memorized. Every word. But Jesus isn’t looking for information. He knows they’ve read it. But do they obey it? Jesus’ question pierces through their me-centered approach to marriage and everything else for that matter. It’s one thing to affirm the Bible is God’s word. It’s another to obey it.

Then Jesus tells them the word they most certainly have read: “He who created them from the beginning made them male and female…” The climax of creation is God making humans “male and female.” It’s not one gender or the other.  God’s creative design was for a man and woman to be joined, not separated. “Can I divorce my wife for any cause?” (see v. 3) shows that the Pharisees get God, creation, image of God, and marriage all wrong.

Then Jesus goes for the jugular. The Pharisees appeal to Moses. Well, why did Moses command men to give divorce certificates to their wives? Jesus answers, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” At the heart of Pharisee belief was not self-sacrifice and forgiveness. It was ruthless justice and self-justification through strict adherence to the law. Moses’ law never commanded divorce, but allowed it and did so to keep vulnerable women safe in a society full of sinful Pharisee-type husbands.

This me-centered theology led to me-centered practice: what is the minimum she can do to me so that I can get out of this? That’s the crux. Jesus does say that divorce is allowable in the case of sexual immorality (v. 9), but his point is not so much to preside over divorce proceedings as it is cutting to the heart of a selfless, religious people who think they are honoring God’s law when, in fact, they are breaking his heart.

What’s going on in the bigger picture? The Pharisees are a microcosm of Israel who left their true Husband, Yahweh. And Jesus is going to show them that he is that true Husband. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, after all (16:21-28; 17:22-23; 20:17-19) to die for his Bride, forgive her (even of grievous sin!), wash her clean, and work mightily for her holiness—not kick her out in the cold. This is what Paul makes clear in Ephesians 5.

To the Pharisees, marriage was not about giving yourself up for the good of your spouse. It was about demanding and taking from your spouse so that you would be served. Jesus flips this on its head and shows that the religious elite truly have hard hearts, not obedient ones. Jesus will give himself up so that we come to see what marriage is all about—one man and one woman joined together before God in a loving, harmonious union of self-giving, forbearance, and forgiveness that points to a greater marriage: God’s with his people (cf. Hosea 1-3; Rev. 21:1-4).

Now the application for us becomes a bit more obvious—even for those of us with good marriages. I have never asked what’s the minimum Carly can do to me so I can send her away. But there’s a slice (sometimes a big one) of Pharisaism in my heart—and probably in yours. I too often make my marriage about me and what I can get out of it rather than about us and what I can give to my wife. I confess that my heart (which is Jesus’ point, after all) is all too ready to “send her away.” Not with divorce papers. But in the subtle, mini-divorces of angered silence, frustrated tones, sarcastic comments, and blame shifting.

If you think Jesus’ teaching about divorce is only for those with a marriage on the rocks you are fooling yourself. While we are asking what’s the minimum our spouse can do so we are justified in our literal divorces or metaphorical mini-ones, Jesus goes the distance to love his Bride by giving himself up for her. He’s saying, “It’s your hard heart that moves you send your spouse away when they wrong you. But I’m moved to run toward you and lay down my life for you, though you have wronged me.”

From the beginning, marriage was meant to be a living drama of God’s love for his people. His “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always, and forever love,” as someone once wrote. That’s the kind of love he has for us. That’s the kind of love he wants in our marriages.

Gender, Sexuality, and the Gospel (Part 1)

Over the next week, I’m going to write three posts addressing gender and sexuality through the lens of the gospel. In this first post, I want to provide an overarching biblical vision for gender and sexuality that will help explain why Christians believe what they believe about these issues.

Why do Christians believe that transgenderism and same-sex relationships (and marriage) are wrong? It goes beyond “proof-texting,” meaning, this is about more than a couple isolated verses here and there in the Bible. Yes, there is Leviticus 18 and Romans 1 and others. The text of Scripture is clear (even non-Christian scholars agree).However, the biblical vision for gender and sexuality is just that: a vision. it is an entire narrative that is woven throughout the fabric of the Bible. It’s a picture of the good life, the life God intended for us.

The Bible is, first and most of all, a story. It’s a story of God’s creation and, consequently, his redemption of that creation. In the beginning, when God created the universe (Gen. 1-2), what we see is that God has designed the world to work in complementary pairs. He makes light and darkness, water and land, night and day, evening and morning, and so on, finally culminating in the creation of mankind as male and female. And the beautiful union that happens between male and female constitutes marriage. So we see that from the very beginning, gender and sexuality were designed by God to be complementary, not uniform.  

As the biblical story continues, what we come to find out is that the male-female union is a reaffirmation of the goodness of creation and a living parable of God’s intention for gender, sexuality, and, consequently, marriage. Ultimately, the complementarian nature of each gender and the male-female union are signposts for how God relates to his people. We see this foreshadowed in Hosea and the Song of Songs in the Old Testament and fully revealed in Ephesians 5 in the New Testament. God does not use our gender, sexuality, and marriage as an analogy of his relationship with humans because it’s convenient. It’s not like God said, “Hey, marriage seems to be a hit with them, so I’ll use that as an analogy.” No, God created and designed gender, sexuality, and marriage with the express purpose in mind that it would point to to the relationship of God with his people through Jesus. That’s the ultimate marriage. That’s why gender and sexuality matter. 

Now when we get to the end of the story in Revelation 21, what we come to see is that the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven. And what does it come looking like? As a bride adorned for her husband. This Bride, the Church, is prepared and given to her Husband, Jesus Christ. On that day, everything God has planned and Christ accomplished will be made consummate. Thus our gender and sexuality and marriages are pictures of an ultimate reality—something that has happened in Jesus and something that Jesus will finalize when he returns. 

It’s clear then that what Christians believe about gender and sexuality go far beyond a few verses here and there. It’s a whole narrative that’s showcasing the beautiful vision God has for his people, our life together, and our life with him. 

Everyday Talk, Everyday Discipleship

My wife and I live with two non-Christians, and a third is moving in this fall. These people don’t know much about Jesus. Their affection for Jesus is, practically, non-existent. When we talk about Jesus or pray or sing, they do not fall on their faces confessing their sin and praying for God’s Spirit to rain down mercy on them. Still, we’ve welcomed them as genuine members of our family. There are good days and bad days, but we love these people. Their journey to Jesus is a process. They have stony hearts and rebellious wills hell-bent on seeking their own glory, not God’s. They seek their own good, not that of others. We pray that someday they believe in Jesus and see transformation. But man alive, right now it’s not pretty. In fact, it can be downright unbecoming some days.

Can you imagine living with people like this?

Chances are, you do.

If you are a parent.

Our two, soon-to-be-three, non-Christian housemates are our beloved children. They are full-fledged members of our family, cherished and treasured above all else. Yet they did not come out of the womb singing “Just As I Am.” They aren’t Christians yet. They are members of a covenant household—Carly and I belong to Jesus—but they need conversion, just as we did at one point.

Having the perspective that we don’t just have two children but two non-Christian children (and another ready to move in), changes everything. Everything becomes evangelism and discipleship. Every conversation is a gospel conversation. Every failure or success is a moment for correction or instruction or encouragement or training. If and when our children do cross over from unbelief to belief in Jesus, this everyday and everything discipleship will not stop, but continue on quite organically.

If Carly and I are going to lead our non-Christian children to Jesus, it’s going to happen in the mundane, average, everyday stuff of life. A conversation here, a conversation there. While we walk and play and talk and read stories and watch movies and eat meals and drive and kiss ouchies and wipe away tears. Over and over and over again. It’s not going to be a one-time event or a once-a-week lesson at Sunday School. Those things can help, but it’s the everyday talk that will be the primary influence in our home. Deuteronomy 6:4-25 shows us the power of “everyday talk” in the home.

As parents in a big and fast society this is hard to handle. We want Chia Pet discipleship: after a few weeks gospel seeds start to sprout, the shekinah glory comes down, and our children are changed on the spot.

The reality is that it happens over a long period of time with lots of short, meaningful, gospel conversations that produce a lifestyle of discipleship

It happens on the way to Sunday worship, when Bailey asks me if God hears loud noises. I say he hears everything, so Bailey asks, “Is God in my heart?” Perhaps Bailey knows, deep down, there are things going on in her heart that no one knows and if God is in her heart, surely he’d “hear” those “noises,” too. Whatever the case, I say, “God is in your heart if you trust Jesus and love him.” Back to the radio. “Can you turn it up?” And we drive on.

It happens at the grocery store. Bailey makes a comment about the color of someone’s skin, simply noticing she looks different—a little darker—than we do. Everyone is made in the image of God and Jesus died for all people, not just the white ones. Back to veggies and ice cream and bread. And we walk on.

It happens when I’m unbecoming and selfish and hell-bent on seeking my own glory, and I turn to my blonde 24-month-old Hope and say, “Sweetheart, what Daddy said and did was not okay. Please forgive me. I need Jesus just like you.” Kiss. Hug. And we play on.

This is how discipleship happens. Look at the birds of the air. The grass of the field. Notice the sower. Consider this mustard tree. Do you see that mountain? Carly and I aren’t great at this. We probably aren’t even good at it. But we are learning and growing. We—the disciple-makers—are also being made, being changed. And it’s our prayer that, over time, by God’s sovereign grace, our everyday discipleship makes a few everyday disciples of Jesus right in our home.

The Way of the West and the Way of the Cross

Westerners, particularly Americans, love big. Big paychecks. Big business. Big burgers. Big houses. Big yards. Big contracts. Big stadiums. Big events. I suppose this is a human thing, of course. But we Americans tend to specialize in big.

Unfortunately, churches in America love big, too. We think that if just more people show up on Sunday, we’re growing. We think that if we had a successful outreach event on a Friday night, we’re doing evangelism. We think that if a large crowd gathers for an class, we’re making disciples. We think that if we just have more “big” events on the calendar, we are a spiritually active and healthy church.

But Jesus didn’t care much for crowds. In fact, he tried to get away from them. The big crowds and events were interruptions for Jesus. He embraced it, to be sure. He went out to preach to the crowds, but to Jesus, big crowds and big events weren’t the main thing. They were peripheral. To Jesus, real learning, real application, and real life change would happen in small, intimate settings. He had a band of twelve disciples. Three of them were his “inner circle.” He explained things more fully to them. He walked with them. He ate with them. He camped out under the stars with them.

Yet, in America, we like the glitz and glamour. We like to busy ourselves planning big events and then have the audacity to call it “ministry.” It’s the way of the West in the church. And it’s categorically different than Jesus’ method for spiritual formation. Now, big events aren’t bad. I like events. They can be a lot of fun. But when big events become a the thing, they become an ultimate thing. And only Jesus and his way is ultimate. Why do we think we can improve on the methods of the Master? His way is subtle, ordinary, slow, patient, and everyday. He talked about wind and water, figs and flowers, mustard seeds and sheep, virgins and vines.

But go a step further. Think about the end of Jesus’ life. He was alone. His disciples had left him. There was only one crowd and they were shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Jesus died alone, with but a few women, and his beloved disciple John, standing beneath the cross. The way of Jesus—the way of the cross—is not flashy or glamorous. It’s not sexy or attractive or popular. It’s the narrow way—the hard way.

The gospel of Jesus Christ flips the values of the world upside down. It calls us to something radically different. Are we willing to die alone? Are we willing to give everything for a few and lose ourselves—our reputation, our prestige, our ambition—in order to truly gain it all? Or will we—the church in the West—continue to pursue the big, the flashy, the marquee, the eye-catching. Will we be a slave to events and big crowds? Will we forget the way of the Master?

A (Brief) Political Manifesto

I recently attended a political event which was distinctively Christian. It was designed to inform Christians on the current political trends and issues related to family in New York State. I had mixed emotions during the event and as I’ve reflected back on it, not much has changed. But it got me thinking about how faith, the church, and politics intersect. I’ve thought about this before, of course, but this time I had a tangible experience that helped solidify some of my thoughts a bit more. After the event, I had a chance to write a reflection that is a sort of political “manifesto.” I pray it’s helpful to you.

We have been given an unbelievable privilege to live in a democratic republic. I believe Christians should participate in the democratic process. I believe individual Christians should participate and infiltrate the political arena and shine the light of the gospel there as we should in education, business, entertainment, the arts, law, etc.

I believe we should pray for our leaders, whether we agree with them or not. I believe we should submit to the authorities and honor them.

I believe that nearly everything Christians, in general, and pastors, in particular, say and do has political connotations and repercussions because our primary allegiance is to Jesus, not our country or any political party. We serve a different King; we are citizens of another country. We give to Caesar what is his, but ultimately, we give to God what is his, namely us. This is profoundly political in a general sense.

I do not believe pastors should tell their congregations who to vote for. I do not believe churches should run or fund political campaigns or endorse any particular candidate. Rather, church leaders should so teach and lead and equip the congregation so that they understand the Christian worldview and how the gospel changes everything. This will help people make informed, just, and godly political decisions.

I do not believe the kingdom comes through legislation, political power, coercion, or propaganda. We are salt and light. Salt used to preserve is unseen. It only takes a small match to light up a dark room. Our influence is subtle yet constant. Our movement is marginal yet powerful. The church is a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. That is, we are the picture of an alternate city in all our earthly cities. We want justice and shalom for our cities in this world, and sometimes legislation and political action can help. William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery in England is a prime example. But we realize legislation cannot change hearts, and we realize the perfect society will finally come when Jesus returns. So we live together as a picture of that city to come and call others to join us. We desire and look for a new country, and I believe we were made for that country, that city—a city whose gates will never be breached and whose King never needs re-election.