From the earliest days of the Christian faith there has been trouble, consternation and division over the distinction between the covenants. What parts of the Law of Moses are applicable to Christians today? When did the Law of Moses end and the New Covenant begin? What about that period of time recorded in the Gospels when the covenants seem almost to blur? Some have tried to remove any distinction whatsoever and have felt free to use any passage of scripture in the gospels as a precedent for Christian doctrine and practice, while others have concluded that, “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should have been tacked on to the end of Malachi and are wholly Old Testament books.”
This controversy has affected all areas of the Christian faith from worship (instrumental music and Sabbath day observance), the plan of salvation (i.e. some claim the thief on the cross ‘proves’ baptism is not necessary), and morality (marriage, divorce, and remarriage) as well as numerous other doctrines. The focus of this brief study will be the treatment of marriage and divorce in the Old Testament and also in the New.
A careful and scriptural consideration is certainly worthy of our time in order that we might be ‘approved workers handling correctly the word of truth’. The Bible clearly states:
1) the Kingdom was not established until the day of Pentecost (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, 10:7; Mark 1:15) and,
2) the New Covenant was not ratified until the death of Jesus Christ. (Heb. 9:16-17)
The Preparatory Work of John the Baptist and Jesus
The Bible says in John 1:6:
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
John served as one of the most important prophets of all time. His work was foretold by Isaiah, hundreds of years before his birth:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth… (Isaiah 40:3-4)
This prophecy foretells of one who would be sent before the Messiah to prepare the way for His coming and the establishment of His kingdom. The allusion is that of a man sent ahead of the King to clear the highway so the King’s journey is more comfortable. God knew that most of the Jews
a state of forgetfulness; they had crafted by their traditions a new kind of Messiah, very different from the one that the scriptures had promised. The Jews believed in an earthly kingdom and a great military ruler who would establish a Solomonic utopian empire. John was this forerunner sent as a ‘fire and brimstone’ preacher to reform the nation and turn them back to God so that they would be ready to accept the Lord when he came.
Another prophecy concerning John’s work was made by angels just prior to his birth:
And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:16-17)
John preached water baptism and went into the wilderness of Judea baptizing Jews “for the remission of sins.” (Mark 1:4) This is a powerful demonstration of John’s preparatory work, for though he baptized for the remission of sins, Jesus had not yet died, so remission of sins had not actually come. (Heb. 10:4) The baptism of John was with a view to the coming sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.
We also find that John came preaching repentance, saying, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mark 1:15) According to John 3:6 the Baptism of John was also “to enter the kingdom,” that is, with the promise that when the kingdom was established, those who had received John’s baptism would be in it. After Jesus was baptized, and His divinity was recognized from Heaven, we find that John was put into prison and Jesus and the disciples took up his work and preaching.
From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” His disciples also continued John’s baptism. (Matthew 4:17; John 4:1-2)
Thus, the period of time recorded in the Gospels is unique in that it is a time of change. The Law was coming to an end and the New Testament was about to be established. While this did not fully occur until the death of Jesus Christ (Heb.9:16-22), during three years of ministry. He laid the foundation of His kingdom and introduced laws and principles that the Church would rest on. We will notice some clear and definite examples of this.
The Plan of Salvation
When considering Gospel passages dealing with the forgiveness of sins it is an admittedly difficult task to discern if they:
—had application under the Old Law,
—or were special circumstances during the life of Christ,
—or were forecasts of the kingdom law and were not put into force until after Christ’s death.
However, with the whole of scripture we can find a sure and simple answer. From time to time we read about people in the Gospels who made animal sacrifices in the temple (i.e. Luke 2:22-24). We can be assured that these were Old Testament ordinances and are not enjoined on Christians (Hebrews 9:23-28). Other times in the Gospels we find where men and women where directly forgiven of their sins by Jesus Christ (i.e. the thief on the cross, the paralytic, the demoniac of Gadara, the adulterous woman) and none of these cases were alike. There are several reasons why such cases cannot be repeated, not the least of which is that Jesus is not personally on the earth today.
Regardless of how much anyone wishes it, it is impossible to identically replicate the conversion of the thief on the cross or any of these others remarkable situations. How then can we be saved? It is important to note that Jesus went through the countryside “preaching the gospel of the Kingdom.” (Matthew 4:24 and 9:25 – emphasis added) In the gospels we find record of when men were commanded to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, (John 3:16, 18) to repent of their sins, (Luke 13:3, 5) to confess faith in Christ (Matthew 10:32) and to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. (John 3:5)
Although these principles were taught prior to His death, it is obvious that these teachings would not be put into force until the Kingdom was fully established and the New Covenant was ratified by His death ! While there are examples of men and women being saved without one or more of these steps prior to Christ’s death, after the death of Christ, no one was saved without compliance to the entire system.
One of the most glaring proofs that Kingdom law was taught prior to the establishment of the Kingdom is found in Matthew 18:15-17:
Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.
Here we find an instruction on Church discipline, written in “Old Testament language”, before the church was even established! Obviously, like the Gospel preaching we just noticed, this was a part of the Lord’s preparatory work, laying the foundation for the kingdom. It is important to notice that the instruction contained in these verses is not repeated by any Apostle in post-crucifixion writings.
The Lord’s Supper
For further proof we might notice the effect it would have on the Lord’s Supper to exclude any and all teachings found only in the Gospels as ‘Old Testament doctrine’. It should be noted that the first observance–the pattern for all subsequent observances–occurred prior to the death of Jesus Christ. However it is clearly born out that this was going to be a ‘kingdom ordinance’ (Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18). Furthermore there are several aspects of the Lord’s Supper that are only mentioned in the Gospels, namely, the use of unleavened bread (Matthew 26:17) and the identification of what kind of drink element should be put in the cup. (Matthew 26:29) This is of exceptional importance to our study because if one discounts EVERYTHING mentioned only in the Gospels than he will wind up with a cup and nothing to put in it when he observes the Lord’s Supper!
The Sermon on the Mount
Around the issues we have thus far addressed there is very little controversy. Some claim that water baptism was an Old Testament ordinance and dismiss its necessity today, but very few serious scholars hold this position. However, when it comes to Jesus’ sermon on the mount, there is an overwhelming amount of controversy. Which sections (if any) were statements to the church? Which parts (if any) were statements to the nation of Israel?
Some points we have already noticed are worth bringing up again:
1) The mission of Jesus was preparatory for the coming of the Kingdom,
2) Jesus did, on several occasions, teach laws that only had application to the church and would mean nothing at all to the Old Law system,
3) On several occasions Jesus used what might be termed “Old Law Language” (i.e. Matthew 18) to help His Jewish audience to understand His teaching, even though they were ultimately for the church.
It is quite evident that this same theme is present throughout the Sermon on the Mount. In chapter 5:1-11 Jesus gives the Beatitudes which no one fails to apply to the Church and are obviously in contrast to the structure of the warring, fleshly nation of Israel. In verses 17-20 Jesus explains how He was not going to abolish the Law but rather He was going to bring the “fulfillment” of everything the Law longed for (alluding in his last statement to the ‘new birth’ which is the only way true righteousness could be attained).
In verses 21-26 a phrase begins to be used which is especially important: “You have heard that it was said to those of old…” Here Jesus is making a distinction between the Law of Moses (which he quotes) and His new teaching, which is marked by the statement “but I say unto you…”
In this particular case (verses 21-26) His language seems to be very archaic, using terms like ‘the council’, ‘raca’ and ‘the altar’. However in spite of this, it is almost universally conceded that these statements refers to a distinctly ‘New Testament’ concept! Certainly the same is true of Jesus’ next statements regarding lust and adultery. But now, when we come to verses 31-32 the water seems to become very muddy for many people and suddenly it is “obvious” that Jesus is here teaching Old Testament Law.
The first major problem with this theory is that the Old Testament didn’t teach what Jesus said!
Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.(Matthew 5:31,32)
Jesus gives here only one exception for remarriage after divorce, and that exception is adultery. But the Law of Moses gave several exceptions for divorce and remarriage:
When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled. (Deut. 24:1-4)
Here we find that ‘uncleanness’ (a term which had a wide variety of meanings) and ‘detesting’ were scriptural causes to put away a wife under the Old Law, and she was allowed to remarry (except to her first husband) if she had a spouse in between the divorce and the reconciliation. Furthermore we find that if a wife was found in adultery the husband was not to divorce her but to stone her to death! (Lev. 20:10) What Jesus taught in Matthew 5:31-32 was not the same thing that the Law taught, in fact it was nothing like it! Those who wish to exclude Jesus’ teachings on
the New Testament
are grossly inconsistent in that they will accept his statements before and after verses 31 and 32, even though they sound more ‘old testament’ than verse 31 and 32! There is no just cause to exclude the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ from the New Testament law. It was a great demonstration of Christ’s preaching of transition from one testament to another.
Matthew 19:9 teaches virtually the same thing as Matthew 5:32, but we will give it close attention as well because it serves to further prove our case. In Matthew 19:1-9 the Bible says:
Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished these sayings, that He departed from Galilee and came to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them there. The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.
In this remarkable discourse we find Jesus laying out the changing of God’s Law on marriage, divorce and re-marriage throughout the three dispensations of sacred history. This is especially interesting because most moral principles have remained constant and unchanging from creation. Divorce and re-marriage are unique in that God had divinely changed what is moral and immoral regarding this matter three times! But the last time was in the New Testament, His final revelation, so we should not look for it to change again!
In verse 4-6 He speaks of that which was:
1) ‘from the beginning’ (that is the Law during the Patriarchal Age leading up to the Old Testament’s inauguration on Mount Sinai) that is, that marriage was for life, no exceptions, but this was changed by…
2) Moses, who, ‘because of hard hearts’ gave the Law to Israel that they should give a bill of divorcement and put a woman away. Finally we see…
3) Jesus, who gives us an all new, and final, teaching on the subject when He says:
Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.
It amounts to nothing to argue that this teaching occurs nowhere else in the gospels or the writings of the Apostles, for the same could be said about a number of other issues we have already noticed, and the truth of the matter is that just one scripture is authoritative!
It would be pure hubris to discount the difficulty that some gospel scriptures present as to their classification as Old Testament or New Testament. God’s servant must be diligent, comparing scripture with scripture to determine the truth. The only way to accomplish that task is by avoiding unnecessary and dangerous extremes (i.e. excluding everything or including everything.) One undisputed statement of Jesus is His great promise, “ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you.” What a grand assurance that honest hearts can find the truth!
 A regular argument several “old-school” No-Exception Preachers.