YES MEANS YES
Matthew 5:31-37 NET
31 “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, do not take oaths at all — not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, 35 not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. 36 Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one.
We have been studying Jesus’ sermon on the mount and we are seeing that he intended his sermon to be a manual for his missionaries. He had called them the light of the world, but he knew that if they simply kept doing things the way they had learned to do them from their culture, their light would be put out. So, Jesus gave them some instructions on how to live so that the people who saw them would notice the light. In other words, if they did things “business as usual” then the mission would suffer. The mission was to draw attention to Jesus Christ and proclaim him as the world’s savior and coming king. But the world around them would want to squeeze them into its mold. The apostles would have to make choices that would prevent that from happening.
Jesus criticized his culture for making it easy to end a marriage (v.31).
The culture in which the apostles lived had an easy fix for a bad relationship. They believed that ‘whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’
Filson says the idea behind the legal document was to protect the woman. He says the “practice of giving the wife a written certificate of divorce was a protection for her. A capricious husband might drive her from his home with an oral declaration of divorce and later insist that she was still his wife. With a written certificate, however, she could remarry, as Jewish custom permitted, and could not be accused of adultery (87).
But Bland says that the legal document turned out to be an excuse to end a marriage easily. He referred to “a note or writing whereby a man declared that he dismissed his wife and gave her leave to marry whomsoever she would. This being confirmed with the husband’s seal, and the subscription of witnesses, was to be delivered into the hand of the wife either by the husband himself or by some other deputed by him for this office: or the wife might depute someone to receive it in her stead. This must be done in the presence of two, who might read the bill both before it was given into the hand of the wife and after: and when it was given, the husband, if present, said behold this is a bill of divorce to you” (134).
So, behind every man’s mind was the fact that if his current relationship did not please him, there was an easy way out. The law would allow him to have a do-over. But Jesus condemned that way of thinking.
For Jesus, easy divorce was a problem, rather than a solution (v.32).
He said, “everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” The easy way out was not a way out. It was a way into adultery. If your wife was committed to you, giving her a piece of paper was not going to change that. It would just be forcing her to commit adultery with someone willing to have her. If you sought to marry someone divorced in this way, you would be choosing to commit adultery, no matter what the piece of paper said. The culture’s solution was a problem rather than a solution. It created a whole society of broken relationships. It was too easy because it avoided the reconciliation that God wants when two people have a problem with one another.
Remember that Jesus taught his apostles to reconcile with a brother who had something against them. He said that reconciling was so important that it trumped regular worship. Reconciliation was more important than religion. The culture taught them that if someone had something against you, the solution was easy — just unfriend them and ignore them. But Jesus said that every relationship is important and that God wants reconciliation.
Jesus introduced the topic of adultery when he told his apostles that “whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (5:28). The culture’s easy solution to that problem was “Look but don’t touch.” Jesus told them that the easy solution is not a solution. Looking is the problem, and you need to rid yourself of the problem of lustful looking, even if it means tearing an eye out.
This issue comes up again as recorded in Matthew 19.
3 Then some Pharisees came to him in order to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?”
The Pharisees are asking the wrong question. They are only interested in what is lawful, and what is allowed. For many today, that is all they are interested in. They want to know how they can get away with doing what they want without being arrested. their question is not “What is the speed limit?” Their question is more like “How much faster can I go beyond the speed limit without being stopped by the cops?”
4 He answered, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Jesus redirected their question — away from the Law — to the original intention of the Creator for his creatures. God had created Adam and put him in a garden to enjoy. Then he made Eve and gave her to Adam so that they both could enjoy each other. The two of them were literally made for each other. They were designed for each other’s happiness. Until sin entered the picture, they were each other’s best friends.
God intends for all marriages to follow that model. The two hearts are designed to beat as one. The two are to become one flesh. This is why God joins a man and a woman together. They are combined. The combination is a good thing. God had said it is not good for man to be alone. It was lawful for Adam to stay alone, but it wasn’t good. It was permitted, but it was not the best.
7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?”
The Pharisees had assumed that Moses’ permission was God’s last word on the subject. They were guilty of taking one passage from the Bible and teaching it as if all the other passages on the subject did not matter. We should not do that, even with these passages from Matthew’s Gospel. We find out from later texts in the epistles that there are some legitimate reasons for divorce. But the issue that Jesus was dealing with was hardened hearts.
8 Jesus said to them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning, it was not this way. 9 Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.”
Jesus encouraged a lifetime of follow-through on our commitments (vv. 33-37).
He said “you have heard that it was said to an older generation, ‘Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not take oaths at all — not by heaven, because it is the throne of God, not by earth, because it is his footstool, and not by Jerusalem, because it is the city of the great King. Do not take an oath by your head, because you are not able to make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’ More than this is from the evil one.”
The problem with staying true to your commitments was another one that the culture of the apostles had learned to deal with. In their minds, a promise did not mean anything unless it was accompanied by a solemn vow. They had learned to be fast and loose with their yeses and nos because there was no obligation to be faithful to those words unless they had been made legal by vows. Mounce explains that the “very existence of a vow introduces a double standard. It implies that a person’s word may not be reliable unless accompanied by some sort of verbal guarantee” (48).
Johnson says that when “Jesus says that anything additional to yes and no is of the evil one, it is a recognition of Satan’s title as father of lies” (41). If your yes does not always mean yes then there is a devil behind it. If your no is not consistently no then there is a devil behind it.
Jesus wants his missionaries to be just as true to their everyday commitments as if they were given from the throne of God in heaven. He wants us to understand that the commitments we make in Delco are just as important as promises made in Jerusalem. He wants our word to be our bond. He wants our small commitments to be treated with the same loyalty as our marriages. He wants every yes to be just as important to us as our “I do” was. He wants every no to be a never.
The reason for all these commands is that we represent Christ and his coming kingdom. If people are going to turn to Christ, it is going to be because of us. So our words need to be reliable. Our promises need to be kept. Our commitments need to be something that others can depend on. If we fail to live up to our commitments made in these human relationships, then people will doubt what we say about the kingdom we say we belong to.
How can we follow the command of Christ and honor all our human commitments? We can do this. All it takes is living daily with the realization that our King could come today. Would we want the last statement we made before he comes in the clouds a promise that we intended to break? We want him to say “Well done, good and faithful servant. We want to enter into his joy, not experience his condemnation.
Bland, Miles. Annotations on the Gospel of St. Matthew. 1828.
Filson, Floyd V. A Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew. New York: Harper, 1960.
Johnson, Benjamin A. Matthew, the First Evangelist: A Reader’s Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew. Lima, Ohio: C.S.S. Pub. Co, 1977.
Mounce, Robert H. Matthew. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991