Divorces and Marries Another

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on July 28, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or see below).

Do any of you have one of those page-a-day calendars? You know the kind: each day, there’s a page with today’s date and some kind of fact, an inspirational quote, or a different picture. Each day, you tear off a new page and see something new. I once saw one of these calendars that had a different Bible verse for each day of the year. Each day, you tear off another page and read another Bible verse. On one day, July 3 to be exact, this calendar had the following Scripture passage, quoted from the King James Version: “If you therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.” That sounds good. If you worship God, you’ll have everything! But there’s a problem. That verse isn’t quoting God. It’s Luke 4:7, where Satan is tempting Jesus to worship him in the wilderness. Satan lies to Jesus and says, “If you worship me, I’ll give you everything.” Context matters.

While that may be an obvious example of ripping a verse out of context, the fact is that many people do that, though often in more subtle ways. Various people do that with controversial issues. For example, take the issue of immigration and our nation’s southern border. Some people will quote a passage from Leviticus, where God tells the Israelites to love the sojourners and to treat them as natives (Lev. 19:33–34). I guess they mean that we should accept every immigrant who comes to our country. Others may appeal to Nehemiah, in which the wall around Jerusalem is rebuilt, or Ezra, in which the Israelite men were told to “Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives” (Ezra 10:11).[1] Their point is that there is nothing wrong with walls and drawing boundaries. People once did this with the issue of slavery: they quoted verses from the Bible against slavery and to support slavery.

The fact that people have used the Bible to support opposing views raises some important questions. Is the Bible really so confused that it teaches contradictory messages? Then it can’t possibly be the word of God. Or perhaps the problem isn’t with the Bible, but with its interpreters. Perhaps the Bible is consistent, but we tend to interpret it wrongly.

At this church, we believe firmly that the Bible is God’s word, and that because God is true and doesn’t lie, and because he doesn’t change, the overall message of the Bible is consistent. However, the Bible is a collection of books written over many centuries. It’s a long book. And it takes a lot of time, effort, and study to understand its message. Taking one verse out of context can actually lead to a misunderstanding of God’s word. If we take one verse out of context, we may walk away thinking we’re understanding God’s will for us when we’re actually siding with the devil. That’s why I take time to explain the Bible, and to explain context. I want to make sure that we understand what God is actually saying to us.

Lately, we’ve been studying the Gospel of Luke to understand Jesus, the Son of God. And today, we come to a short passage that is a bit hard to understand. If we read one of these verses out of context, we might walk away with a very wrong view of one controversial issue. So, I’m going to give us a whole-Bible context for that one issue.

Today, we’re in Luke 16. Two weeks ago, I preached on the first fifteen verses of the chapter, which seem to belong together. In those verses, Jesus teaches that we should use the resources that God gives to us wisely. Specifically, he teaches that we should use our money for God’s purposes. Luke tells us that when the Pharisees, a group of Jewish religious leaders, heard this teaching from Jesus, they ridiculed him because they were secretly “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). They didn’t want to be told that they had to be generous, that all the wealth they had was from God. And Jesus said that God knows their hearts and that what is exalted among men is an abomination to God (Luke 16:15).

Later in this chapter, Jesus will teach a famous parable about an unnamed rich man and a poor man named Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). The rich man ignored the plight of Lazarus. When both men die, they end up in different places: Lazarus is with God in heaven and the rich man suffers condemnation in what we could call hell. Here is an example of a man who didn’t use his wealth to honor God, because he trusted in his money and not in God. And Jesus suggests that this wealthy man didn’t understand the Old Testament, what he calls “Moses and the prophets.” If this man knew the Hebrew Bible and believed its message, he would have lived differently.

Between those two passages are the following verses. At first, it’s hard to understand why they’re here. But I think if we read them in context, we see that Jesus is teaching that God’s word is consistent, and that if we take the whole of God’s word together, we should see that what Jesus teaches is consistent with the Old Testament. The Jews of his day should have realized that he was the Christ, the anointed King that the Old Testament promised would come.

Without further ado, let’s read Luke 16:16–18:

16 “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.

18 “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”

Let’s break down those three verses. In verse 16, Jesus seems to contrast the period prior to his ministry with what happens in his ministry. The Law and the Prophets are two portions of the Old Testament. The third part of the Old Testament, according to the original arrangement of the books, was known as “the Writings.” Jesus is saying the era of the Old Testament extended to John the Baptist, the one who announced that the Christ was coming. John the Baptist told people to prepare for the coming of the King by turning away from their sins and turning back to God. Since then, Jesus says, the good news, or, “the gospel,” of the kingdom of God is preached. The ESV says “and everyone forces his way into it.” I think the alternate translation, which you can see in the footnote, is right: “everyone is forcefully urged into it.” Obviously, not everyone wants to be part of the God’s kingdom, at least not on God’s terms. But Jesus did tell his disciples to go throughout the world and passionately urge people to turn to the King.

So, it seems that Jesus is contrasting the Old Testament era with the New Testament era. There are some differences, to be sure. The Old Testament prepares the way for Jesus. It looks forward to him, it anticipates his coming, it foreshadows his ministry in many ways. Yet Jesus knows that people might misunderstand what he’s saying. They may think that the old era is entirely different than the new one, as if God has changed his mind. So, in verse 17, he says that it would be easier for all of creation to pass away than for the tiniest part of the Old Testament to become “void,” to be changed or to be thrown away. No, everything in the Old Testament was intentional. Everything had its purpose. The Law, another way of referring to the Old Testament, is all about Jesus in some way or another, and Jesus came to fulfill the Law (Matt. 5:17–18). He obeyed the Law perfectly, and all the Law points to what he came to accomplish.

Now, in verse 18, Jesus very suddenly pivots to talk about marriage and divorce. And this is where we really need to pay attention to context. If we read only this one verse, we may think that everyone who has divorced and remarried has sinned and is still living in sin. But, as we’ll see, that’s not true. I think what Jesus is doing is giving us a test case for the consistency of the Bible’s teaching. What the Bible says about marriage and divorce is very consistent, just as what the Bible teaches about money, wealth, and charity is very consistent.

So, let’s take a tour of the Bible’s teaching on marriage. In the very beginning of the Bible, we see that God made men and women to be united in marriage. The first chapter of the Bible says that God made men and women in his image and likeness (see Gen. 1:26–28). Both men and women are meant to reflect God’s glory, to represent him on earth, to serve him by ruling over the world according to his terms, to love him and obey him as perfect children would love and obey a perfect father. There is a suggestion even in the first chapter of the Bible that men and women complement each other. In Genesis 1, we see other complementary pairs: heavens and earth, light and darkness, water and sky, land and sea. In the same way, men and women are meant to go together, to complement each other, to correspond to each other.

In Genesis 2, we see that God created the first man, Adam, and then created a woman, Eve, to complement him. When Adam sees Even, he says, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gen. 2:23). Then, we’re told this: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Adam and Eve were made for each other, and they were married in the garden of Eden. Think about this: before there is any form of human government, there is marriage. Before there is technology, there is marriage. And don’t miss the most obvious point: God created marriage. God invented this institution. This is not the product of tradition, or some primitive society. It comes from God. And that’s important to know because there are people who don’t believe marriage is good or necessary. Recently, there was an article in The Atlantic arguing that marriage isn’t necessarily good.[2] The article notes that today in America, about half of people over the age of 18 are married. In 1960, 72 percent of Americans of that age were married. When people do marry, it is often later. Of course, many couples choose not to marry at all. But we should see that marriage is God’s plan, and that it is the basic building block of society. That’s why two of the Ten Commandments deal with marriage and family. The fifth commandment instructs us to honor parents, and the seventh commandment prohibits adultery (Exod. 20: 12, 14).

I’m not going to speak about singleness today, but I feel like I need to interject a footnote here. The Bible doesn’t teach that everyone must be married. The New Testament honors the importance of those who remain single. Single Christians can be even more devoted to God in some ways. But, still, marriage is a good gift. God’s plan for sex and having children is intimately connected with marriage: People should haven’t sex and have children outside of marriage. Of course, any sin can be forgiven by God, but still, God’s plan is that sex should occur within marriage, that raising children should involve man and woman, father and mother, husband and wife.

Marriage is so important that there are other laws in the Old Testament about marriage. To understand the Jewish perspective on divorce and remarriage, however, we should look at just two of those laws. The first one is a bit surprising, but it factored into Jewish understanding of marriage and divorce. Let’s look at Exodus 21:7–11:

“When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

This passage is strange to modern ears, because it talks about slavery and the possibility of a man marrying multiple wives. I can’t get into the issue of slavery today, except to say that the Bible regulated the institution of slavery; the Bible doesn’t command slavery. Slavery was not part of God’s initial plan for humanity. Also, the slavery of the Old Testament was very different from the slavery in America. In Israel, people who were in debt could sell themselves as slaves, slaves were supposed to be treated well, and they could be freed. Obviously, that wasn’t the case in America. And polygamy was also not part of God’s plan: we already saw that one man and one woman were meant to be united in marriage.

So, with that qualification, look at what the passage says about marriage. It says that a female servant, if she is regarded as a wife, is required to have food, clothing, and “marital rights,” which were regarded as “conjugal rights.” If a man would not give his female slave these things, she was not bound to him as a wife. She could be set free, with the understanding that she could marry another man.

While the passage is about a female slave, we shouldn’t write it off. If a female slave who was a wife of a man was to be given food, clothing, and affection, how much more should a free woman or a free man be given these things! Judaism understood that the failure to provide material support and appropriate affection was grounds for divorce.

The other law regarding marriage and divorce is Deuteronomy 24:1–4:

1 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.

This law imagines a scenario in which a man has found something “indecent” in a woman. The Hebrew literally says that a man has found “the nakedness of a thing” in the woman, which is a way of referring to sexual immorality. The law doesn’t command that a man divorce his wife if she has committed adultery, but it says that in the case where a woman has committed some sexual sin and a man divorces her, he should do it in the following way. If she marries another man, and if that man divorces her or dies, she shouldn’t go back to her first husband. I suppose the reason is that she has made a mockery of marriage by committing adultery and having serial husbands, and that is why she is called “defiled.” The important thing to see here is that the Bible acknowledges that there is another ground for divorce: sexual immorality, namely adultery.

By the time of Jesus, many centuries later, there were two different interpretations of this passage. One rabbi, named Shammai, interpreted the passage in the way that I just did. This law only allows divorce in the case of sexual immorality, when someone has violated their marriage vows. Another rabbi, Hillel, read the law to mean that a man could divorce his wife for “any cause.” I think that’s the wrong reading of the passage, but it became the most popular way of reading it.[3] Josephus, a Jewish historian writing at the end of the first century AD, refers to this when he writes, “He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever (and many such causes happen among men), let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more.”[4]

Jesus was asked about these different interpretations of the Deuteronomy 24. We see this in Matthew 19. I’ll read verses 1–9:

1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed 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.”

When the Pharisees come to Jesus, they are asking him to weigh in on the “any cause” reading of Deuteronomy 24. They are saying, more or less, “Who is right? Is Hillel right that we can divorce for any reason whatsoever? Or is Shammai right in saying that Deuteronomy 24 is only about sexual immorality?” Jesus goes back to Genesis, saying that God’s definition of marriage is found there. Notice how Jesus says that “he who created” man and woman, “said” Genesis 2:24. This is another way of seeing that Jesus regarded the Old Testament not as man’s word about God, but God’s word written through man.

Jesus says that man and woman are supposed to be united, and that their union should not be separated. However, he acknowledges that we are sinful, that we have hard hearts. Therefore, he says that divorce is legitimate in the case of sexual immorality. In other words, he says that Shammai was correct.

Now, Jesus is only looking at Deuteronomy 24 here. If he were asked specifically about Exodus 21, he probably would have said that a husband who fails to provide for his wife has failed his marriage vows, and that is another ground for divorce. The apostle Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians 7 (see in particular verses 10–16), says that if a Christian is married to a non-Christian, and that non-Christian abandons the Christian, then divorce is allowable. The person who was abandoned may be divorced and there is no reason to believe that person cannot remarry.

So, the Bible very clearly states that divorce is allowed in the cases of sexual immorality and abandonment. The Bible doesn’t command people to get divorced in those cases, but there is a recognition that if one spouse cheats on the other, it is very hard to move forward. The one who is wronged should forgive, and, if possible, should try to reconcile with the unfaithful spouse. But perhaps the unfaithful spouse doesn’t want to be reconciled. Similarly, in today’s society, with our no-fault divorce laws, it is easy for one person to want out of the marriage. If one spouse wants to abandon the other, there’s nothing that the spouse who wants to stay in the marriage can do to change the other’s heart. In these cases, God has allowed divorce. And when a person has divorced, the marriage is terminated, and the person is free to remarry.

The trickier issues of interpretation deal with such things as abuse. Can a wife who is being abused by her husband divorce him? Obviously, this is legal in America. But is this right in the eyes of God? I think there’s a great case to be made that an abusive husband violates his marriage vows, and if he is unrepentant, the wife can legitimately divorce him. Married people shouldn’t be quick to divorce. We should pray for reconciliation. We should forgive when people seek forgiveness. But we cannot change another person’s heart. And I don’t think God intends to trap people in miserable situations that are not of their own making.

If we read the Bible carefully, we see that there is a consistent message about marriage and divorce. If we read only Luke 16:18, we would be led to think that divorce is always wrong, and that remarriage is never allowed. And that is why we must read the Bible as one whole story, and we must not read passages in isolation. God didn’t only give us the Gospel of Luke. He gave us the other 65 books of the Bible, too.

Christians are not members of the old covenant, the one that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai. Therefore, Christians are not bound by the terms of that covenant. We are not bound by the Law. The law was given to a particular nation in a particular historical time frame. It was given to Israel, which was supposed to be a theocracy, not a democracy. Therefore, we can’t simply translate the Old Testament Law to modern governments, which is why cherry-picking a few verses from the Old Testament and applying them to America is wrong. The Law was given to Israel before the coming of Jesus. Therefore, Christians are not bound to follow all the ceremonial laws regarding sacrifices and proper worship. All those laws foreshadow the only true sacrifice for sin, Jesus, who is not only the Lamb of God, but the true High Priest and the true temple.

However, we should look to the Old Testament for ethical principles. And when we see the principles that undergird the Law, we find that these ethical principles are applied consistently in the New Testament. Making sense of the Law takes work. It takes a thorough knowledge of the Bible. It takes wisdom and knowledge. It takes the hard work of thinking carefully. Most people don’t have that kind of knowledge or wisdom, and a lot of us are very lazy intellectually. We don’t like to think long and hard about complex issues. That’s why people often adopt fundamentalistic attitudes, whether they’re Christians or atheists. There are religious fundamentalists and atheistic fundamentalists. There are right-wing and left-wing fundamentalists, conservative and liberal fundamentalists. What is common to both is a lack of thought and instead of carefully applying principles, they both want a list of right and wrong things. But that’s not what God has given us. He wants us to read the Bible, to think, to pray, and to come together to reason.

When we do these things, we see that divorce and remarriage are not always wrong. Divorce is always the result of sin, but it is not always sinful. And part of the reason why we know this is because God himself was a divorcee. In the Old Testament, God is said to be the husband of Israel (Isa. 54:5). Many theologians believe that God “married” Israel at Mount Sinai, where made a covenant with them, after redeeming them out of slavery in Egypt. But Israel cheated on God by worshiping other gods.

In Jeremiah 3, both the divided kingdoms of Israel (the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Juda) were said to have committed adultery against God. This is Jeremiah 3:6–10:

The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah: “Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. 10 Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.”

God wrote Israel a “decree of divorce.” God divorced Israel because she was unfaithful. God did not sin in divorcing Israel. This metaphorical divorce was the result of Israel’s sin. Much of the material I’ve presented in today’s sermon is presented by David Instone-Brewer, who has written two books on the subject of divorce and remarriage in the Bible. He writes this:

Thus the Old Testament prophets describe God as a divorcee, and when you put together all the references, you find a clear and unanimous picture. God had married Israel at Mount Sinai in the wilderness, then brought his bride across the threshold of the Jordan into Palestine. There he gave her food (milk and honey) and wool for clothes, and of course he loved her and was faithful to her. In Palestine, however, Israel was introduced to many other gods and started to worship them, offering them sacrifices of food and ornaments. The prophets described this worship of other gods and spiritual adultery.[5]

That was what happened with Israel, but it’s really our story, too. God made us to have a special relationship with him, marked by faithfulness. And we have gone and worshiped other gods. We’ve made created things more important to us than the Creator. We’ve spent our love, time, energy, and money on many other things and not on God. We’ve cheated on him. And God has every right to divorce us forever, to consign us to condemnation and hell.

But God is amazing. He seeks after unfaithful people. He promised Israel that he would one day remarry faithless people (Isa. 54:6–8; 62:4–5). He did that by sending his Son, Jesus, into the world. Jesus is the only one who never cheated on God. He is the only one who was perfectly faithful, never failing to love, obey, and worship God the Father. And yet Jesus was cut off from the land of the living. He was treated like the worst of criminals, suffering under torture and dying on the cross. He also bore God’s holy, righteous wrath against sin. He did this so that all who trust in Jesus would be forgiven of sin, adopted into God’s family, and brought into the church, the bride of Christ.

Marriage is important because it was designed to reflect the true marriage of God and his people. The apostle Paul says that marriage “refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32; see Eph. 5:22–33 for context). For that reason, we shouldn’t take marriage lightly. But marriage between humans isn’t ultimate. The true marriage, the one that will last forever, is between Jesus and Christians. If you aren’t part of that marriage, I urge you to confess your sins to God and put your trust in Jesus. I would love to talk with you more about what that would look like in your life. If you are a Christian, then do marriage on God’s terms. Wives, respect and submit to your husbands. Husbands, love and care for your wives, the way that Jesus loves his church. If you have failed in marriage, know that Jesus stands ready to forgive you. That doesn’t mean we have a license to sin, but it does mean that there is hope for sinners who have failed at marriage. It’s better to fail at human marriage and be part of the true, eternal marriage, than to have a happy marriage now and be divorced from God forever.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Mandy Len Catron, “What You Lose When You Gain a Spouse: What If Marriage Is Not the Social Good That So Many Believe and Want It to Be?” The Atlantic, July 2, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/07/case-against-marriage/591973.
  3. For this sermon, I’m drawing heavily on information presented by David Instone-Brewer in Divorce and Remarriage in the Church: Biblical Solutions for Pastoral Realities (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
  4. Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged 4.253, ed. and trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), 120.
  5. Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, 38.

 

Divorces . . . and Marries Another (Luke 16:16-18)

Jesus teaches that the there is a consistent message across the Old and New Testaments, and he uses the issue of divorce and remarriage as a test case. See what the Bible teaches about this issue by listening to this sermon, preached by Brian Watson on July 28, 2019.

Everything Created by God Is Good (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

Everything created by God can be enjoyed if used in the right way. We sin when we use God’s creation in the wrong way, when we make an idol of something created, or if we forbid entirely the things God has made. Brian Watson preaches a message on 1 Timothy 4:1-5.

Everything Created by God Is Good (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on July 22, 2018.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (see also below).

When you have young kids in your home, you find yourself saying certain things quite frequently. One of those sayings is, “Knock it off!” That’s a favorite saying of my wife. My most often frequent saying is probably quite simply, “Stop it!” There’s another saying I have: “That’s not a toy!” I might say that whenever my sons start to play with something that catches their eye, like a computer or a hammer or a staple gun. Okay, I’m joking with that last item. My sons are now at an age when they’re naturally curious, and there are times when playing with something that’s not a toy can be destructive and even dangerous.

My wife used to allow our kids to play with some items in a drawer in the kitchen. It’s kind of our culinary junk drawer, where we store anything from measuring cups and measuring spoons to spatulas and other assorted kitchen tools. About three and a half years ago, I found Caleb playing with a crinkle cutter. It’s a little tool that makes crinkle-cut slices of potatoes and cucumbers and other vegetables. It’s designed for a purpose: it makes these crinkle-shaped cuts. It doesn’t do anything else. Caleb was running the edge of it along my nice, black, lacquer-finished piano. Now there is a nice, thin, long scratch made by the end of the crinkle-cutter. I guess I should be thankful that his brother doesn’t have a crinkle-cut finger. But I wasn’t thankful at the time. My boy had used something in a way that didn’t line up with its purpose.

Now, that’s not very serious; there are worse things than a scratch in a piano. But there are times when a tool, when used as a toy, could become quite dangerous. And there are times when things that are not used according to their purposes become very dangerous, even deadly. Think about the drugs we call opioids. Many of us have heard that we’re living in the midst of an opioid crisis or epidemic. Opioids are the kind of drugs that trace their origins back to opium, which is made from the opium poppy, a flowering plant. Opium is what makes morphine, a powerful painkiller. It’s also what can be processed into synthetic opioids, prescription painkillers that help people with acute and/or chronic pain. It’s a good thing to have painkillers. Seven years ago, I had a herniated disc in my lower back. The L5/S1 disc impinged on the sciatic nerve on my right side, which created a great amount of pain in my butt, hip, and leg. I spent the better part of three months lying down on the floor. I also took painkillers for three months. They didn’t eliminate the pain, but they reduced it greatly. When I had surgery, I was given some morphine afterwards. I have seen people dying on morphine, which eased the pain of their last days, hours, and minutes. Anything that is safe and can reduce this kind of pain is a good thing.

But some people get addicted to prescription painkillers. Millions of people misuse prescription painkillers. Millions in the world are using them illegally. And thousands die from overdoses every year. In 2016, there were 42,249 people who died of opioid overdoses.[1] Of those, 20,145 died from synthetic opioids (other than methadone) and 14,427 died of natural or semi-synthetic opioids. Opium can also be processed into heroine, an illegal drug, which killed 15,446 people in 2016.[2]

So, something that occurs in nature, the opium poppy, can be produced into chemicals that relieve pain and suffering. Those chemicals, when taken in excess, can also kill. And the same natural thing can be processed into a chemical that is illegal, highly addictive, destructive, and deadly.

This reveals an important biblical truth. Everything that exists in nature can be used for good or for bad purposes. God made these things good. But when they are misused, the result is very bad. We can misuse things by using them in a way contrary to God’s design for them. We can misuse things my making an idol of them. And we can also misuse good things by avoiding them and telling others not to use them.

We see all of this in the passage that we’ll look at today, 1 Timothy 4:1–5. Three months ago, we started to look at the letter of 1 Timothy, a book of the New Testament. It’s a letter written by the apostle Paul to his younger associate, Timothy. Paul left Timothy in the city of Ephesus while he was gone. He wanted Timothy to make sure that the church in Ephesus was healthy. In particular, he wanted Timothy to protect the church from false teaching. In today’s passage, we see some of the content of their wrong teaching. So, with that in mind, here’s what we’re going to do today. I’m going to first read the passage, explain what it means, and then think a bit more deeply about how we can rightly appreciate and use the things that God has created.

Here is 1 Timothy 4:1–5:

1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.[3]

Paul says that the Holy Spirit has indicated that in “later times” people will depart from the truth faith and teach false things. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the one God; he is the one who empowers some people to speak the word of God. He is the one who led Paul to write this letter. And he spoke through apostles and prophets to indicate that in “later times,” there would be false teachers.

What does Paul mean by “later times”? Well, he means now. And I don’t mean the twenty-first century. I mean the time between Jesus’ first and second comings. If you look carefully at the New Testament, you’ll see this. For example, Paul writes something a bit similar in his second letter to Timothy. In 2 Timothy 3:1–5, he writes,

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

I think that people have always been lovers of self and money, they’ve always been proud, and so forth. But if Paul meant that people would only be this way in the period right before Jesus returned to earth, he wouldn’t say, “Avoid such people.” Timothy wouldn’t have to worry about those people, because they would come much later in time. So, the “last days” and the “later times” are the long period between Jesus’ first and last coming.

Now, what prophecy is Paul referring to? Peter and Jude make a reference to prophecies about false teachers (2 Pet. 3:1–3; Jude 17–18). Jesus said that in the time leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 70, “many will fall away” and “many false prophets will arise and lead many astray” (Matt. 24:10–11). Paul may also be referring to something he said earlier in time, recorded in the book of Acts. While speaking to the elders of the church in Ephesus (the same city where Timothy was located), he said,

29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:29–30).

Paul knew that false teachers would come, now they are in this church, and now they are leading people to depart from the faith. Literally, these people have apostatized.[4] These false teachers are insincere liars, which means that they know they are teaching false things. They’re not just making honest mistakes. They have consciences that are seared, which likely means that they are branded. It’s possible that their branding means they are marked as belonging to Satan, the devil. That would make sense of the why they are associated with “deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons.” That may sound extreme, but it reminds us that all lies ultimately come from Satan, “the father of lies” (John 8:44). The Bible teaches us that there is more to reality than what we can see. There are spirits, both angels and demons, who are at work to either support or fight against God’s plans.

False teachers are influenced by Satan, and they can appear to look godly, though their message is wrong. In 2 Corinthians, Paul wrote of other false teachers. About them, he wrote,

13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds (2 Cor. 11:13–15).

So, what was this “teaching of demons” that these false teachers taught? Was it some secret occult practice? Was it teaching people to bow down before some shrine or statue of a god? Was it the first-century equivalent of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”? No, not at all. These teachers “forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” That’s surprising. They were telling people not to get married—and probably to be celibate. They were also telling people not to eat certain foods. They were probably trying to tell people to maintain the dietary laws found in the Old Testament (Leviticus 11). I say that because these same false teachers had an incorrect understanding of the Old Testament law, something Paul mentioned in the first chapter of this letter (1 Tim. 1:3–11).

In short, it seems like they taught that certain practices could lead people astray, that marriage, perhaps because of the issue of sex, might somehow be inherently bad, that eating certain foods might corrupt people. We would think that false teachers would teach people to go have all the sex they want and eat all the foods they want. But this is quite the opposite.

Yet these false teachers were wrong. “God created [food] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” The problem isn’t marriage or certain foods. The problem, really, is inside of us, not the created things that we find in the world.

To understand this, we need to have a grasp of the story of the Bible, or what we might call a basic biblical worldview. To get a quick handle on that story, we need to remember four words: creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

First, there is creation. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). When God made things, he saw that they were good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). There is no hint of created things, or physical things, being bad. God ordered and designed the material world to function in a good way. Other philosophies or religions teach that material things are somehow worse than so-called “spiritual” or immaterial things. But this isn’t what we see in the Bible. The goal of the biblical story is not to escape from the material world.

Second, there is the fall. Something bad happened, something that distorts us and our experience of this world. The first human beings turned away from God. They didn’t trust him and his word. They didn’t listen to his commandments. They believed the lie that God was keeping good things from them. They didn’t accept God’s design for them and his world. As a result, the power of rebellion that we call sin invaded the world. This created a separation between God and human beings, but it also creates a separation between human beings, and within human beings. There is something broken in us. There is something broken in the material world, too. But that doesn’t mean that the stuff that God created is inherently bad.

Jesus taught us what is wrong with us. He said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15). Then he said,

“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:18b–23).

What is wrong with us is our hearts, our disordered desires. Those disordered desires lead us to commit sins, wrong actions. The things that God made have right uses, but we end up using things the wrong way. And because we have fouled up God’s good creation, and because God wants to restore his good creation, God has every right to evict us from his good creation forever. In other words, he has every right to condemn us. That’s bad news.

But there’s good news. And that is redemption. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God sent his unique Son, the second Person of the Trinity, who became a man, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is therefore truly God and truly man. Jesus came to fulfill God’s purposes for humanity. He is the perfect image bearer of God, the perfect representative, the perfect human ruler, the perfect worshiper, the perfect lover of God and lover of other people, the perfect Son of God. The fact that Jesus became a real man shows that the material world is not inherently bad. It shows that created things can be perfect. Though Jesus was and is perfect, he was rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. He never did anything wrong to deserve such treatment. But people hated him and didn’t believe him. And yet this was all God’s plan to put the sins of his people on his Son’s shoulders, and it was the Son’s plan to bear the righteous judgment of sin on behalf of those who trust him. All who believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and did what the Bible says he did are forgiven of their sins, adopted as God’s children, and granted eternal life. People who trust Jesus receive the Bible as the word of God and try to live their lives according to what the Bible says we should do in these “last days.”

The end of the is the restoration of the universe. In the end, God’s people won’t live in “heaven.” They will live in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), a new creation. It will be a physical world, a place where there is real food and there will be a real marriage, though not between mere human beings. The real marriage is between God and his people, Jesus and his church. This is a metaphor, of course; not all that occurs within a human marriage occurs with the divine marriage. But it captures something of the beauty, exclusivity, faithfulness, and love of the relationship that God has with his people.

So, the story of the Bible teaches us that created things aren’t inherently bad. Instead, it teaches that sinful people have a way of failing to use the things of God’s creation rightly. We fail when we distort God’s good gifts, using them for wrong purposes. When God says, “That’s not a toy!” we should listen. He knows better than we do. We fail when we make those gifts into an idol, something that is ultimate in our lives, an object of worship. Today, when people take one aspect of creation and build their lives around it, instead of building their lives around God, they don’t think they’re worshiping. They don’t think that thing, whatever it is, is an idol. But that’s really what it is. It is the functional object of their worship. Yet we were made to worship God alone. We also fail when we act as though God’s good gifts are inherently bad.

We can misuse anything. We can turn anything into an idol. And we can overcorrect by avoiding good things.

It’s not likely that we’ll do this with food, but it’s still possible to make that mistake today. People misuse food by eating too much of it, or by eating too much of things that should be eaten in moderation, like desserts. People can turn food into an idol when their lives revolve around gourmet food, or turn to food for comfort and security and happiness, or when they become obsessed about what they eat (probably for health reasons). I’m not sure that people forbid eating certain foods for religious reasons, though there are orthodox Jews and Muslims who abide by certain dietary codes.

We can do this with alcohol. This is what Psalm 104 says about wine:

14  You [God] cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
15  and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart (Ps. 104:14–15).

Israelites were allowed to have “strong drink” when they celebrated feasts in Jerusalem (Deut. 14:26). And the new creation is described as being a “feast of well-aged wine” (Isa. 25:6). Jesus ever turned water into wine (John 2), so it can’t be inherently bad.

But what do we do with alcohol? Many people drink too much, and this causes great destruction and death. Some people can’t live without it. Others then turn around and overreact, saying that all drinking is inherently sinful. Now, it’s true that the Bible says that drunkenness is wrong (Eph. 5:18 is but one example). But Scripture doesn’t forbid all drinking.

We can do this with marriage. Marriage is a good gift created by God. But we misuse it in many ways. God designed marriage to be a lifelong union of one man and one woman. Yet we redefine marriage; many ancient societies had polygamy: one man had many wives. Marriage is meant to be exclusive, so that the husband and wife do not have sex with anyone else; many people have committed adultery. Of course, there is the problem of divorce. And now there is the problem of redefining marriage, so that it’s not necessarily a union of one man and one woman.

Some people create an idol of marriage. They believe that their spouse will complete them. They believe their spouse will fulfill all their desires and dreams. Spoiler alert: the best spouse will never, ever do that.

Very few people forbid marriage for religious reasons. One group, the Shakers, did. But it’s hard to keep a religious movement growing when you don’t have marriages that produce babies. The last remaining Shaker community in America is located in New Gloucester, Maine, and it has only two members.

We certainly do misuse sex. It is a good gift, meant to be experienced only within marriage. Yet we have it outside of marriage. We reduce other human beings to “sex objects,” as things to be consumed. We turn sex into an idol, the ultimate pleasure or experience. And some people can give the impression that sex is somehow inherently bad, though it’s not.

We can do the same thing with work. We misuse work when we don’t work, or when we mistreat people who work for us. Work is distorted wherever slavery exists. Work becomes an idol for some people; they find their identity and satisfaction in life through work. Some people act as if work is a necessary evil, something that only exists because sin exists. But work existed before sin entered into the world. God gave Adam a job to do (Gen. 2:15). So, work is not inherently bad.

The same could be said of money or possessions. We misuse money by spending it on the wrong things, or by stealing. We’re supposed to use things and love people, but we turn this around and use people and love things. Wealth is a great idol. It makes the false promise to us that if only we were rich, we would be happy and secure. Some people then act as if having money, or owning anything, is evil. But possessions are gifts from God. They can be appreciated. They can be used for God’s glory. We use money to fund ministry. Any church, any missionary endeavor needs some level of funding. We can use our possessions to bless others. For example, we can use our homes to house guests, to have people over to get to know them, to provide a safe place for our family. A home can become an idol when we put too much money into it, when all our thoughts and energies and desires are wrapped up in having the perfect house. But a house is a good thing if used rightly.

As you can see, we can misuse anything. We take the good things that God has made and use them wrongly, or turn them into ultimate things, which then become the center of our lives. That place should be reserved for God alone. If we overreact and then refuse to use the gifts that God has given to us, or if we refuse to enjoy good things, we’re committing another error. We are denying the good things that God has given to us. When we reject the gift, we’re rejecting the Giver.

Our only hope is redemption. Our only hope is turning to Jesus for our salvation. Only Jesus can reconcile us to God. Only Jesus provides forgiveness of sins. And only Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit, who starts to change our distorted desires. The Spirit can rearrange our loves so that we enjoy God’s gifts and use them rightly, the way that God designed them to be used. Without God’s help, we turn tools into toys, and toys into tools. Without the Spirit, we turn people into things, and things into idols. But when we come to Jesus, and when we rely on the Holy Spirit and seek to obey God’s instructions for life, we can begin to use the things that God has made in a right way. We can then enjoy a meal and not only think, “This steak is great!” Instead, we’ll also think, “How great is the God who made cows that we can turn into steak!” That may seem silly, but it’s not. The difference is big. If we see all of reality as designed by God, we can thank God for his good gifts and use them rightly.

If you’re here today and you don’t know Jesus, I urge you turn to him. Only he makes us right with God. And when we have a relationship with him, our vision of life starts to change. We start to see things rightly. We start to see everything with reference to God. He alone gives us eyes to see the truth and the power to live according to the truth.

Christians, remember that Paul says that “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” Let’s thank God for those good things. They were made good, so let’s not call God a liar by believing they’re not. And they’re made holy through God’s word and prayer. That is, the gospel message—this message of Jesus that we talk about—shows us how all things can be holy, consecrated to God. And when we pray to God, thanking him, asking him to help us to use his gifts wisely, all things can be enjoyed in the right way. Everything, even enjoying a meal, can be an act of worship. Elsewhere, Paul says, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Our final hope is the restoration of the world, the transformation of the creation. It will be a feast, a world of good gifts, the greatest of which is God—his presence and his blessing. The prophet Isaiah said,

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:6–9).

Notes

  1. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-opioid-overdose-deaths-20180329-htmlstory.html
  2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
  3. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  4. The phrase “will depart from” is a translation of ἀποστήσονταί (apostēsontai).