At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the news about Jesus, and said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
For when Herod had John arrested, he bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. For John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Although Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded John as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod, so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Having been prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” Although he was grieved, the king commanded it to be given because of his oaths, and because of his dinner guests. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison. And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took away the body and buried it; and they went and reported to Jesus. – Matthew 14: 1-12
This is not the first time it’s seemed necessary to rebut a John Piper blog due to its wrong premises, “creative” scripture interpretation and erroneous conclusions. This is unfortunate, because Dr. Piper is one of the few who is adamant that divorce is never justified and that remarriage after divorce is adultery in all cases. The problem is, he deems all marriages to be morally equivalent and interchangeable once they do occur, hence he deems it to be a “repeated sin” for a repenting prodigal spouse to divorce out of an adulterous union and reconcile with their true spouse. This time we find a very interesting Piper theory concerning Matthw 14:4 in his blog post dated January 3, 2017:
We get a lot of emails on relationships, everything from dating, engagement, marriage, and of course divorce and remarriage. This genre of email dominates all the other questions we get. And we get a lot of good push back emails and follow-up questions in search of greater clarity, like this one from a listener named Matthew: “Pastor John, I have a follow-up to you on episode 920 on divorce. Didn’t John the Baptists want Herod to ditch his wife? Because John had been saying to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her’ (present tense). See Matthew 14:4. He did not say, ‘It is not lawful for you to have taken her’ (past tense). And we all know how important tense is interpreting the Bible. She is called his wife. So how do you reconcile this seemingly clear call for a married couple to divorce?”
There are at least three things in this passage that are unknown to us and that keep me from using the passage to justify divorce. I admit that sometimes divorce for a faithful believer is inevitable, because Paul says so in 1 Corinthians 7:15 when an unbeliever insists on leaving a believer who does everything he or she can to make the marriage work. You can’t stop an unbeliever from doing that and, therefore, divorce as they carry it through may be inevitable. Remarriage in that situation is another issue. We are not talking about that.
(We don’t disagree! — although, all concerned should bear in mind that all divorce is man-made and dissolves precisely nothing, unless the marriage was adulterous to begin with.)
Here come the highly imaginative arguments:
John the Baptist may have been telling Herod “Get out of the relationship,” not “Get out of the marriage.”
SIFC: Fair enough – the relationship is immoral, and the civil-only purported “marriage” does not exist in God’s eyes. We do disagree with the premise of the question, So how do you reconcile this seemingly clear call for a married couple to divorce?” The objection, of course, is to the loose usage of the term “married couple” for an adulterous union that God didn’t participate in and will never recognize as a marriage. To claim otherwise accuses a holy God of breaking covenant with the undissolved true marriage, and covenanting with that which His Son repeatedly called adultery. Both are completely foreign to the holy character of God.
So, let’s go back to this text. The text says, “For Herod had seized John” — John the Baptist — “and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her’” (Matthew 14:3–4). That is a good translation, by the way. “It is not lawful for you to have her.”
1. The first thing that is unknown to me is when Herod married his brother’s wife — or if he actually married her.
SIFC: We recommend reading the account of the historian, Josephus (Antiquities 18.5.1 109-115), who informs us that Herod divorced his covenant wife to legalize his adultery with Herodias, and Herodias divorced Philip, if you’re at all curious about this. Why would the king of Judea bother to divorce his true wife if there wasn’t a pressing need to keep up the appearance of “respectability” by legalizing his adultery?
When John says “it is not lawful for you to have her,” is he definitively saying that they are married? Or only that they are sleeping together or living in some kind of common law situation — kind of a situation that looks like marriage just to avoid legal issues? Most commentators document that they were married, but nobody seems to actually put a date on it in relationship to this event. If they weren’t married, then John is saying: Get out of the relationship. Stop sleeping together. Not, get out of a marriage. I don’t know.
SIFC: Although most commentators are not entirely trustworthy these days, especially with passages that deal with sexual ethics, or that so much as hint at the sanctity of marriage, in this instance however they are clearly not pulling a speculation out of the air, due to the historical records. It is you, Dr. Piper, who is doing the unnecessary speculating. And adulterous remarriage is not actually “marriage”.
2. The second thing that is uncertain is this: let’s just suppose they were married. The second thing that is uncertain is whether John is actually saying that the marriage should end. He is saying: It is unlawful for you to have her. You sinned in marrying her, if he married her. But it may also be unlawful to throw her out after she had been married to another man and therefore make her destitute on Jewish principle since she can’t go back to that first husband. It is not crystal clear from this text that John is saying ditch her.
SIFC: The man didn’t lose his head for saying, “that’s OK, we’ll work it out somehow. Why don’t you just repent in your heart? It will be fine, don’t worry.” Nor did he risk his head for something trivial that wasn’t a heaven-or-hell issue. John the Baptist, we know from scripture, was filled with the Holy Spirit while still in the womb. Surely he would have known that Jesus would be abrogating the limited-application Mosaic regulation that prohibited some Jewish husbands from taking some Jewish wives back. Even if he didn’t, there’s strong evidence that post-marital adultery was never in the scope of this rule under Moses.
3. But now, let us suppose that John was actually saying: end the marriage. And let’s suppose they were married. So, two uncertainties — we will just assume both of them are true.
The third thing that is uncertain is whether he is saying this because the unlawfulness of the marriage is owing to the fact that she was married before or at the same time or that she was the wife of his brother which, according to Old Testament law, would make the second marriage incestuous, like marrying your sister or your sister-in-law or your daughter. So, Leviticus 18:16 says, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.” Or Leviticus 20:21, “If a man lies with his uncle’s wife, he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness; they shall bear their sin; they shall die childless.”
SIFC: Now here’s where it makes sense to presume that both assumptions are true because they both actually are true, and both clearly create unlawful conditions. At the same time, incest is not a reason specifically cited by Paul as costing one’s inheritance in the kingdom of God, though most surely it does. But Jesus defined adultery three different times as marrying someone else’s God-joined spouse, while both 1 Corinthian 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:19-21 tell us explicitly that adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God. How can John reasonably be seen as NOT telling them to terminate this immoral relationship?
Piper: “I don’t think Matthew 14:4 can be used in any ordinary situation to justify divorce.”
Frankly — and this kind of boils down to the practical reality — I have never in all my pastoral life been confronted with a situation in which a man had married his sister or sister-in-law. It is difficult to know what I would say about the ongoing reality and propriety of that marriage. My inclination, not having faced it and not having thought more than a little about it, is that I probably would say the marriage should end, the way I would if the man was found to have married his own daughter. But those are such extraordinary cases that I would be very hesitant to build a case in favor of divorce in general upon them.
SIFC: Red herring (and nice deflection)! See above. (And Lord, for the sake of the very souls of our prodigal spouses, on the day they are moving toward genuine repentance, please, in Jesus’ name, keep them out of Dr. Piper’s counseling seat. You, Lord, have clearly stated that no ongoing adulterer will have any inheritance in the kingdom of God.)
So, in view of those three uncertainties at least, I don’t think Matthew 14:4 can be used in any ordinary situation to justify divorce.
SIFC: It should be clear that there are no actual uncertainties here, and certainly none that aren’t completely moot. Man’s divorce is meaningless when there is no holy matrimony in God’s eyes to actually dissolve. Rather, it’s repentance, which restores full fellowship with God. To obfuscate the clear meaning of this passage is irresponsible and cowardly, Dr. Piper. It shows zero regard for the eternities of the souls involved, unlike the other John who laid down his very life to try to rescue those souls!
It’s understandable that men like Piper fear, and do everything they can to forestall the mass-repentance that will one day explode in this area when true revival reaches the shores of America (and other divorce-happy nations) where the church as been an active accomplice in driving up demand for marriage dissolution by rewarding its foul fruit. That inevitable day will reflect badly on pastors and denominational leadership who created this complex mess, just like it did on the priests in the book of Ezra when they were forced to confront the negative impact of unlawful marriages and purge them.
Dr. Piper’s rhetorical question is the equivalent of asking whether we can use Exodus 20, verses 15 and 17 to justify the return of stolen goods!
Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John. – Matthew 11:11-13
7 Times Around the Jericho Wall | Let’s Repeal Unilateral Divorce!