As we carry our study into the New Testament, I find a phrase from the Old lingering on my mind: "...the holiness of the LORD which He loved" (Malachi 2:11). It is clear from the context of the above text that God's love and delight are bound up together in making holy matrimony His master plan and the crowning glory of His creation. There is a wondrous beauty that unfolds when husband and wife, with true love, begin to raise a family. All the battles and busyness of child raising, the nappies and the noise all pale into insignificance compared with little things like hearing your child say mum-mum and dad-dad. Yes indeed, a host of memories flood our minds when we parents hark back to those never-to-be-forgotten days. The teenage years too, though sometimes trying, are so interesting as the love between parents and children deepens through the joys and trials of life. Time passes so quickly; we turn around and there stands a beautiful young lady, or a handsome young man. Soon too, courtship and marriage start the cycle all over again, and all the while "God is watching us," but not "from a distance" for this is "the holiness of the Lord which He loveth." Of the wicked days of Noah it is written: "and it grieved him at his heart" (Genesis 6:6). Since those perilous times, God's heart has been often grieved by man's conduct; but never have the beautiful things of life been so corrupted as now. How God's loving heart must ache with the gross perversion of that which He delights in, in our time.
In this chapter, we will again observe the law of first mention, and it comes to us early in Matthew. Here we find the espousal and marriage of Joseph and Mary, and there is much for us to learn through this window into Jewish life. Along with the principles of first mention we have here another principle also, that of "the Jew first." Hence Matthew the gospel, especially written to the Jews, comes first. An understanding of the innate Jewishness of Matthew's gospel will help us understand things that might otherwise be overlooked; for here in Matthew chapter 1, we find certain principles of Jewish life not commonly known or understood by Gentiles. Joseph, as an eligible bachelor in harmony with Jewish custom, had betrothed Mary. This betrothal was a complex and carefully governed agreement made between Joseph and Mary's father with of course Mary's consent. The espousal bond was ratified only after the dowry payment in either silver or gold had been made. In this way a Jewish man secured his bride through an immutable espousal bond. From this point on, he was referred to as the husband and she as the wife, even though the marriage bond had not yet been entered into. Yet, there was one possible exception to the immutability of the espousal bond: fornication. If the bride-to-be had willingly submitted herself to a sexual act with another man, yet continued to pose as a virgin, the man lawfully referred to as her husband could upon discovering the truth, demand back his dowry payment, put away his wife and take another. Furthermore, a proven case of fornication violating the good faith of the betrothal bond could spell death to the bride-to-be and bring great shame upon her father's house.
Hence an elaborate system of chaperoning was devised. An espoused virgin such as Mary was never left alone with any man, not even the man now known as her husband. You will find a detailed account of that which formed the foundations for these customs and laws in Deuteronomy. If any man take a wife, And go in unto her, and hate her, and give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid: Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate: And the damsel's father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her; And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city (Deuteronomy 22:13-17). We have mentioned previously the sensitivity of virginity and the fundamental role that the breaking of the hymen plays in the bonding of husband and wife. As a consequence of these facts of life, proof of virginity was of paramount importance. Hence, virginity was certified by the spreading of a white cloth over the honeymoon bed. The breaking of the hymen would inevitably leave bloodstains on this cloth. This was all carefully governed by the bride's father under the watchful eye of the chaperones appointed by him and answerable to him. In the event of a complaint being lodged by the bridegroom against the chastity of his bride, the sheet was called for. If the bride's virginity was upheld after the elders had made inquisition, the bridegroom had no further recourse. He though was severely chastised for insulting his bride's father. However, should his complaint be sustained, the bride, in accordance with Mosaic law, was stoned to death for her deceit and for the shame she had brought upon her father's house.
Thus, one and a half thousand years of Jewish custom preceded Joseph's betrothal of his virgin. Mary was obviously one of the most pure, sweet and lovely young virgins ever taken by any man to wife. We can imagine the shock to Mary's parents her pregnancy must have been. Their very lack of mention in the gospels and Mary's extended visit to her cousin Elizabeth makes one wonder as to whether her parents understood. Joseph too was a good man and no doubt shattered by the news. He could not, however, bring himself to a public denunciation of Mary, choosing to put her away privately. "Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily" (Matthew 1:19). Joseph was just and quite within his rights to do so. The private divorce of Mary would have freed him to take another virgin, and this would he no doubt have done had God not intervened. Joseph was clearly a true son of Abraham, for he never doubted once God revealed to him the truth. He immediately took his pregnant virgin in a marriage bond. How grateful Mary would have been for Joseph's love and his faith and trust in God and in her while she was in the fulfilment of the most blessed role ever had by any mother. It was against the background of these laws and customs so clearly understood by Israel that Matthew, and Matthew alone, addressed the Jews in regard to Christ's confirmation of the destructive effect fornication could have on the espousal bond.
As mentioned, these principles were well understood in Israel in the time of our Lord. However, to apply these principles to Gentile marriages where no such structure exists would be, in our view, unjust and totally without the substantiation of God's word. Such principles would be ungovernable without community awareness and strict compliance with every aspect of the laws so carefully formulated and practiced in Israel at that time. Also, in our modern day of strenuous exercise and tampons, I am led to believe that it is quite possible that the hymen be broken even though virginity has been maintained. It is clear though that these principles dating back to Moses and sanctioned by Christ had a purifying effect upon Jewish life and marriage. Such firm foundations for holy matrimony would exalt any nation. May we add here that though our Lord upheld the right of Jewish men to marry virgins who were physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually able to bond into full union with them, He in no way upheld the death sentence for either fornication or adultery. We may add too that non-virgins, both male and female, may legitimately marry. However, it must be understood that fornication has led to illegitimate bondings. Both male and female carry enormous problems with them into their ultimate marriage. Such cases must be understood and dealt with in the greatest love and gentleness. Covered sin leads to serious problems; only the truth can set us free. However, great care and caution should be taken. Only godly and humble men who understand the delicate nature of these matters should be entrusted to escort these troubled souls through the minefields of the aftermath of fornication. We will seek later, by God's grace, to devote a chapter to this highly sensitive subject.
Let us now examine Christ's words to Israel through Matthew. "It hath been said, Whosoever shall put 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 5:31-32). Recent translators have displayed their ignorance of Jewish life and taken licence to substitute the words marital unfaithfulness for the clearly understood word fornication. They have argued, from the Greek, their right to such licence. However, we would make this fact perfectly clear: never once does our Lord say fornication when He means adultery, and never once does He say adultery when He means fornication. In Matthew, and Matthew only, Christ deals with the exceptive clause of fornication for the Jews for they understood perfectly what He was saying. Nowhere in all scripture has adultery ever had any dissolving or annulling effect upon the marriage bond. Christ clearly resisted Moses' concession to the hard-hearted and introduces absolutely no such grounds as marital unfaithfulness for the dissolving of a marriage covenant.
If adultery could dissolve a marriage, then how much adultery does it take? "But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). If adultery has annulling power, then the above verse alone is sufficient to dissolve most marriages, for Christ makes it perfectly clear that looking and lusting are equal to the act of adultery. Oh, no, no, no, you say, a man must first go to bed with another woman before his marriage covenant is broken. Do you mean that a man or woman trapped in a weak moment with one act can dissolve the oneness spoken into being by God? Others say, Oh, no, no; it must be two or three acts. We have met scores of men, each with a differing theory as to exactly what breaks a marriage bond. However, we have never met a man who can tell us exactly when the one became two again. Please let us explain with this hypothetical example: Jack and Jill were married on the 10th of March at 11 a.m. in 1975. In 1987, after the birth of their fourth child, Jack became involved in an extra-marital affair. Now Jack and Jill were pronounced man and wife by their pastor who, in stewardship for God, pronounced them man and wife. What man will pronounce them two again, and if they became one at 11 a.m. on March 10 in 1975? Who will nominate the time and place they have become two again? Was it in 1975 when Jack first looked and lusted, or was it in 1987 when Jack first got into bed with another woman? Tell us what man has been ordained of God to pronounce the one to be two again. And if Jack is no longer one with Jill, are his children still his children? I think you see the folly of this whole affair. "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Mark 10:9).
We have been amazed in our crazy, mixed-up world as we have witnessed teenagers divorcing their parents. It is equally as impossible to dissolve the fact that your parents are your parents on the grounds of bad behaviour, as it is to dissolve the fact that your spouse is your spouse. Good behaviour will bring blessing and bad behaviour will bring grief and separation; but there is no such thing as behaviour, sin or circumstance altering that which came out of God's mouth. "The two shall be one." How dare any man lift himself above God and nominate the time and place when and where the "one" spoken into being by God Almighty have become "two" again? God alone has reserved this right through death.
We will be confirmed in the rightness of these matters when we examine the man chosen of the Holy Ghost to represent Holy Matrimony to the church. Paul clearly allows marriage after the breaking of the espousal bond, but strictly forbids remarriage while a husband or wife still lives. We reiterate: an espousal bond may be broken by sin, but nothing can break the marriage bond other than death. Contrary to the rhetoric of many theologians, we do not need a degree in the Greek language in order to ascertain whether marriage is permanent or not. God has not spoken to us through vague concepts nor has He veiled His will. Rather, the matter is clear so that even a child can understand, for holy matrimony is "the holiness of the Lord which He loveth."