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14. How to Protect Our Marriages (Matthew 5:31-32)

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“It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 5:31-32 (NET)

How can we protect our marriages?

In the previous passage, Matthew 5:27-28, Christ corrected the Pharisees’ view on adultery saying that if one lusted in his heart, he had already committed adultery. Here in Matthew 5:31-32, he corrects their permissive view of divorce. Essentially, the Pharisees legalized adultery by allowing themselves and others to simply get a divorce and remarry the person they desired. Divorces were very common in ancient Israel and in the ancient world in general. “The first-century [Roman] poet Martial speaks of women who have been ten times divorced.”1 Over 400 years earlier, in the book of Malachi, God rebuked the Israelites over this very issue. He said:

Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth. “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

Malachi 2:13-16 (NIV)

The people in Israel were wondering why God rejected their worship. He told them that it was because of the prevalence of divorce in their culture. He describes divorce as bringing “violence” in the home (v. 16). He also implies that divorce hurts the children by making them rebellious. In the middle of this passage, he says, “And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth” (v. 15). God desires godly children; therefore, the Israelites should stay faithful to their wives instead of divorcing them.

The reality of children experiencing long term negative effects from divorce is well attested. In 1979, former Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, Armand Nicoli, said this:

If people suffering from severe nonorganic emotional illness have one experience in common, it is the absence of a parent through death, divorce, or some other cause. A parent’s inaccessibility, either physically, emotionally, or both, can profoundly influence a child’s emotional health. (“The Fractured Family: Following It into the Future,” Christianity Today, 25 May 1979)2

He continues, as quoted by John MacArthur:

“The trend toward quick and easy divorce, and the ever-increasing divorce rate, subject more and more children to physically and emotionally absent parents.” If the trend is not reversed, he says, “the quality of family life will continue to deteriorate, producing a society with a higher incidence of mental illness than ever before.”3

Certainly, this is what we are seeing today. Children often struggle with great anxieties, depression, and other maladies which come from the absence of one or both parents. Lack of parental affection and guidance can often lead to acts of rebellion like joining gangs, abusing drugs, and other criminal activity. God desires godly offspring, so we must remain faithful to our spouses.

Divorce was not only common in the ancient world, it is common in modern times. Sadly, it has become almost fashionable. I once read a bumper sticker that said, “I am always right; ask my ex-wives.” Around fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. “Some surveys indicate that eight of ten people are either directly or indirectly affected by divorce.”4 The mere mention of the word “divorce” brings painful memories and feelings to many people. It was an epidemic during Christ’s time, and it is an epidemic now. Therefore, Christ speaks right to this issue in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount.

How can we protect our marriages, spouses, and children? As we study this text, we will learn principles about protecting our marriages in a culture of divorce.

Big Question: What principles about protecting marriages can be discerned from Matthew 5:31-32?

To Protect Our Marriages, We Must Be Delivered from Permissive Views about Divorce

“It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’

Matthew 5:31

Interpretation Question: What exactly were the Pharisees and scribes teaching about divorce?

When Christ said, “It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document,’” he is continuing to correct the Pharisees’ misinterpretations of the law. This particularly referred to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which gave instructions about divorcing one’s wife. It says:

If a man marries a woman and she does not please him because he has found something offensive in her, then he may draw up a divorce document, give it to her, and evict her from his house. When she has left him she may go and become someone else’s wife. If the second husband rejects her and then divorces her, gives her the papers, and evicts her from his house, or if the second husband who married her dies, her first husband who divorced her is not permitted to remarry her after she has become ritually impure, for that is offensive to the Lord. You must not bring guilt on the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.

This passage was meant to protect the wife; the husband couldn’t just leave her on a whim and then try to take her back later. Divorce had to be legal. This meant the husband needed to think long and hard about leaving his wife. The law was meant to hinder divorce, not promote it.

The interpretation of this passage became a matter of contention among the Jews. It all centered around the phrase “something offensive.” If a husband found “something offensive” in his wife, he could give her a divorce document. What does “something offensive” mean? The phrase can be translated “some matter of nakedness”; however, it doesn’t always refer to something sexual (Gen 2:25, 3:7, 10). It could simply refer to “some shameful thing.”5 In the first century, there were two schools of thought on this. The conservative school, led by Rabbi Shammai, believed it referred to something sexual, but short of adultery. It couldn’t refer to adultery since adultery required capital punishment in the Old Testament (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22). Rabbi Hillel taught the liberal view that it could refer to anything dissatisfying to the husband, including burning his breakfast.6 Rabbi Akiba, who also came from the liberal school of thought, taught that a husband could even divorce his wife if he found someone prettier.7

During this time frame, the predominant view held was the liberal one—that a man could divorce his wife essentially for any reason.8 The only thing needed was an official divorce certificate. It was all about one’s personal decision and the paper, as if a paper could truly dissolve a marriage. It was this misinterpretation of the law that Christ was correcting.

Sadly, this is also the predominant view in the present world and often in the church. Marriage is all about happiness and as soon as one loses happiness, he or she should consider divorce. When a struggling couple gets marital counseling from friends, family, and sometimes the church, they ask the magic question, “What will make you happy?” If it’s being separated from your spouse, then do it. “Life is too short!” they say. However, that wasn’t Christ’s view, and it shouldn’t be ours either.

Marriage is not about our happiness alone; it is more about our holiness and building God’s kingdom. God gave Adam a wife, in part, because it wasn’t good for him to be alone. He needed a helper (Gen 2:18). But the other reason God gave Adam a wife was for them to oversee God’s kingdom together (Gen 1:28). God ordained marriage, and it is chiefly about serving God and building his kingdom.

This view is expanded in the New Testament as marriage is described as a spiritual gift meant to build up the body of Christ and to advance his kingdom. Consider what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 7:7:

Sometimes I wish everyone were single like me--a simpler life in many ways! But celibacy is not for everyone any more than marriage is. God gives the gift of the single life to some, the gift of the married life to others. (The Message)

Here Paul taught that marriage is a spiritual gift, even as singleness is. And since all gifts are meant to build up God’s body and his kingdom (cf. 1 Cor 12:7), a godly marriage is a powerful weapon for God’s kingdom. The fact that marriages are meant to build God’s kingdom and give God glory makes them a constant target of the evil one (cf. 1 Cor 7:3-5). If Satan can pervert marriages or destroy them, he can hinder the advance of God’s kingdom and diminish the glory God should receive.

Again, in order to protect our marriage, we must rid ourselves of false views about marriage. From God’s perspective, a person’s choice and a piece of paper alone can’t end a marriage union. God ordained marriage for his glory, and he also ordained what ends a marriage.

Well, what is a proper perspective on marriage and divorce?

Application Question: In what ways have you seen a permissive view of divorce in our culture? What are its negative effects on couples, children, friends, and society in general? How have you been affected by divorce?

To Protect Our Marriages, We Must Understand God’s Original Plan for Marriage

But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 5:32

Implied in Christ’s limited view on what can actually sever a marriage covenant is the fact that divorce mars God’s original plan for marriage. He declares that unbiblical divorce leads to the remarried partner committing adultery. This means that though the State may recognize some marriages as being dissolved through divorce, God doesn’t. God’s intent was for the marriage union to last. In Matthew 19:3-6, Christ makes this clear when speaking to the Pharisees about divorce:

Then some Pharisees came to him in order to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

In marriage, a couple separates from their family and becomes one flesh—they become a separate unit or entity. In fact, marriages are meant to model the unity in the God-head. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.” Man and woman were both made in the image of God, but this image was especially seen in their marriage union. In the same way that the God-head is a plural which is one—the Trinity—the marriage union is a plural which is one—two becoming one flesh (Gen 2:24). In fact, even the functionality of the God-head is meant to be seen in the union. First Corinthians 11:3 says, “But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” Though there is equality in the God-head, there is also authority and submission. In marriage, this is modeled; the wife submits to her husband in the same way that Christ submits to God. The husband resembles God’s authority, and the wife resembles Christ’s submission. The husband and wife are co-equal but with different functions. Finally, the marriage relationship models the God-head not only in its unity and function, but also its permanence. What God joins, let no one separate. This union is meant to demonstrate something of the God-head’s permanence which is Christ’s focus in Matthew 19:3-6.

Therefore, when marriages are in discord and dysfunction, they mar the image of God—pushing people, especially the children, away from God. To protect our marriages, we must understand God’s original plan for them. They are meant to model the God-head—in unity, function, and permanence. Without a proper view of something, it will always be abused.

Another comment on the lasting unity of marriage is necessary. First Corinthians 7:3-5 says,

A husband should give to his wife her sexual rights, and likewise a wife to her husband. It is not the wife who has the rights to her own body, but the husband. In the same way, it is not the husband who has the rights to his own body, but the wife. Do not deprive each other, except by mutual agreement for a specified time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then resume your relationship, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

In talking about the importance of the sexual union where a married couple becomes one flesh (cf. 1 Cor 6:16), Paul tells couples to not deprive each other, except for spiritual reasons and a specified time, in order to protect themselves from Satan. The implication of this is that couples need to live together and develop intimacy as a protection for their union. They should not be separated for long periods of time because it opens the door for the enemy. It might be thought that this doesn’t need to be said, but in many cultures, husbands and wives are often more focused on career and comfort than the health of their marriage. They will separate for long periods of time—couples living in different states and even continents. Others live together but really never spend quality time together because of work and other commitments. They often go to different churches, work different shifts, enjoy different hobbies, and therefore are never physically together. Again, this opens the door for Satan to try to destroy what God has joined for his glory. This type of danger should be avoided at all cost. Sadly, many couples live like they’re functionally divorced, as they no longer live together or spend significant time together at all—opening the door for a plethora of attacks from Satan to sever the marriage.

Again, if we don’t know the purpose of something, we will abuse it. What God has put together, let no one put asunder. We should strive to protect the unity that God has given in marriage. Those who neglect this unity and intimacy commonly open the door for Satan to destroy it permanently.

Implied in Christ’s statements about unbiblical divorce is the importance of knowing God’s original plan for the marriage union—in brief, its unity models the God-head and was meant to last.

Application Question: Why is it so important for couples to know God’s plan for marriage? What are some other aspects of God’s plan for marriage that should direct and guide it? In what ways is it becoming common for married couples to not live together or spend significant time together because of career or other reasons? What makes this dangerous?

To Protect Our Marriages, We Must Understand What Breaks the Marriage Covenant

But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 5:32

Interpretation Question: What does Christ mean by the exception clause of sexual immorality?

Next, Christ describes what breaks the marriage covenant. There is a lot of controversy over the exception clause of sexual immorality. This word “immorality” refers to any kind of illicit sex including fornication, adultery, bestiality, incest, etc.9 When used in reference to the marriage union, it refers specifically to adultery. Christ taught that any divorce not caused by adultery, ultimately leads the woman into adultery. This means that she will most likely remarry, and therefore be in a continual state of adultery. Adultery breaks the marriage covenant. When this happens, the innocent party may seek a divorce and remarriage—though it’s not the ideal; however, the guilty party should seek reconciliation or remain single.

This is also true in cases where divorce is probably prudent for a husband or a wife, though there is no infidelity. Even when one divorces a spouse who is physically/verbally abusive or addicted to alcohol and gambling, he or she should remain single or be reconciled. The certificate of divorce alone does not break the marriage covenant before God. First Corinthians 7:10-11 makes this clear. It says:

To the married I give this command—not I, but the Lord—a wife should not divorce a husband (but if she does, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband), and a husband should not divorce his wife.

Sometimes “divorce” is translated “separate.” However, the NET translates it “divorce” correctly, as Christ used the same word in the context of divorce in Matthew 19:6. He said, “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Therefore, when Christ taught that only sexual immorality broke the marriage covenant, he agreed with the conservative train of thought on Deuteronomy 24:1-4. However, because he referred specifically to adultery, as an aspect of sexual immorality, he went even farther than the OT law did. Here Christ is not only correcting the common Jewish misinterpretations of the law (that only a certificate was needed and that it could be done for any reason) but also establishing the radical righteousness of his kingdom (cf. Mk 7:17-19). Again, the OT required that an adulterer be put to death (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). However, under the New Covenant, death is not required.

The fact that Christ changes this requirement is clearly seen in John 8:1-11. In that passage, the Pharisees bring a woman accused of adultery to Christ and say, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. In the law Moses commanded us to stone to death such women. What then do you say?” (v. 4-5). Christ replies, “Whoever among you is guiltless may be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). Each of the accusers, feeling convicted, left one by one. Then, Christ pardons her and says, “do not sin any more” (v. 11). Christ adds mercy to the OT requirement. He doesn’t require the death of an adulterer, but he does require the adulterer to repent.

If we are going to protect our marriages, we must understand what severs them. When a couple gets married, they become one flesh (Gen 2:24). According to Scripture, it is a physical union; therefore, only something physical can break it. There are two things that break the marriage union: The first one is death. When one mate dies, the living mate is free to marry another. Romans 7:2-3 says:

For a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of the marriage. So then, if she is joined to another man while her husband is alive, she will be called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she is joined to another man, she is not an adulteress.

Secondly, as Christ teaches here in Matthew 5:32, adultery also breaks the marriage covenant. In that case, the innocent party could choose to leave that relationship and marry another, while the guilty party should seek reconciliation or remain single.

However, with that said, Scripture indicates that it is God’s desire for the innocent party to forgive the offender and to also seek reconciliation. This is clearly displayed in God’s call on Hosea’s life. God told the prophet Hosea to marry a woman who would eventually become a prostitute and cheat on him. God was going to use Hosea’s marriage to display his commitment and love for Israel, who had been unfaithful to him through worshipping false gods. Hosea 3:1 says:

The Lord said to me, “Go, show love to your wife again, even though she loves another man and continually commits adultery. Likewise, the Lord loves the Israelites although they turn to other gods and love to offer raisin cakes to idols.”

After Hosea’s wife had left him and cheated on him, he sought to restore their relationship in obedience to God. Marriages are always meant to display God’s glory, even when unfaithfulness is involved. This seems to be God’s ideal when adultery occurs. The innocent party, instead of standing on his or her rights for divorce, should humbly pray and persevere in seeking reconciliation. If the guilty spouse will not reconcile, then the innocent spouse may choose to divorce and remarry.

Interpretation Question: Are there any other exceptions which break the marriage covenant and therefore allow for remarriage?

There is no universal agreement on this:

1. Some believe that when a believer is married to an unbeliever and the unbeliever leaves, the believer is free to remarry.

In 1 Corinthians 7:12 and 15, Paul says:

To the rest I say—I, not the Lord—if a brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is happy to live with him, he should not divorce her… But if the unbeliever wants a divorce, let it take place. In these circumstances the brother or sister is not bound. God has called you in peace.

Those who believe this would say the phrase “not bound” means that the person is “not bound in marriage.” The marriage is broken, and therefore, the believer is free to remarry.10 Those who reject this view argue that it doesn’t fit the context. “Not bound” probably refers to not being bound to continually seek reconciliation if an unbeliever leaves.11 This fits with the context of Paul’s command in the previous verse. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, he says,

To the married I give this command—not I, but the Lord—a wife should not divorce a husband (but if she does, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband), and a husband should not divorce his wife.

In addition, this exception would not only apply to the case where two unbelievers are married and one gets saved. It would also apply when a believer marries an unbeliever in disobedience to Scripture (cf. 1 Cor 7:39). This would seem to reward a disobedient believer. With that said, if an unbeliever leaves, most likely, he or she will remarry which then breaks the covenant any way.

2. Some believe that when a person divorces before coming to Christ, and later is saved, they are then free to remarry.

If the previous view is correct (that a believer is free to remarry after the desertion of an unbeliever), then this second view seems to be a logical conclusion.12 Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away—look, what is new has come!”

3. Some believe that there are no exceptions which allow remarriage after divorce.

Those who believe this would say that the word Christ used for “immorality” refers only to fornication. The word “porneia,” from which we get the English word pornography, originally referred only to pre-marital sex. Christ did not use the typical word for adultery, which would refer to extra-marital sex. Therefore, they believe this referred to the betrothal stage in Israel. If a person cheats during this stage, then, and only then, is the other person free to remarry. For instance, Joseph and Mary were betrothed—which was a legal engagement in those days. In the betrothal stage, the couple had not yet consummated and were waiting for the time of marriage. Like marriage, the betrothal stage required a certificate of divorce when ending the union. In addition, if a person cheated on his or her fiancée during this stage, the consequence was capital punishment (Deut 22:23-24). Therefore, those who take this view believe that there are currently no valid divorces before God, which allow for remarriage. Christ’s provision only applied to the betrothal stage, which isn’t practiced in most cultures today. To remarry after divorce always leads to adultery.

However, there are some weaknesses to this view: First, the word “porneia” eventually was used to not only describe fornication but all types of illicit sex, including adultery.13 Second, in ancient Israel, betrothal was considered the same as marriage. While Joseph was engaged to Mary, he was called her husband. Matthew 1:19 says, “Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately.” Deuteronomy 22:23-24 (ESV) also uses the title “wife” during the betrothal stage. Plus, the fact that God required the same punishment for sexual immorality both during the betrothal period and the marriage union (Deut 22:23-24, Lev 20:10), proves that God viewed the betrothal stage the same as a consummated marriage. Therefore, the exception for sexual immorality should not be limited to the betrothal stage. In the OT, immorality in either state broke the marriage covenant, as the offender was stoned and the innocent party was free to remarry.

Application Question: Why are God’s requirements for marriage so strict?

The regulations for marriage are strict in order to discourage divorce. In a society with no regulations and no fault in regards to divorce, it has become rampant and an attractive option in a difficult marriage. Scripture teaches marriage is a covenant which should reflect God’s covenant with us. Even when we fail him and turn our backs on him, he remains faithful to us because of his covenant. When couples get married, they must remember the fact that it is a life-long covenant. This should also encourage singles to be more discerning in who they marry.

Application Question: How should the church respond to those considering a divorce?

We must walk with them and pray with them. We must help them understand what Scripture teaches about divorce. God hates it (Mal 2:16, NASB). And as a general principle, it is typically God’s purpose for us to persevere in trials, as they test and develop our faith. Also, it is while persevering in doing good that God produces a harvest if we don’t faint (Gal 6:9). Most times it is God’s will for us to faithfully persevere in trials, including a difficult marriage, as it will change us and eventually them.

With that said, we must share that there are times divorce should be considered. God gave Israel a certificate of divorce (Jer 3:8). Therefore, not all divorce is wrong or sin. Christ taught that there are valid divorces in the case of adultery. Also, there may be times when divorce is wise if remaining married leads to a greater evil—such as when a spouse and the children are in physical danger. In those cases, they should seek prayer and the counsel of godly saints, including their elders, to discern what is best. If they divorce, they should remain single and continue to pray for the erring spouse. As mentioned, in most cases, the erring spouse will remarry which then breaks the marriage covenant and allows the innocent spouse to remarry.

Application Question: How should the church respond to those who have gotten a divorce?

We should make clear that divorce is not an unforgivable sin. Christ died for every one of our sins, and God’s love and grace are often experienced in even greater ways in our failures. Where sin increases, grace increases all the more (Rom 5:20). As the church, Christ’s body, we must love and comfort those who have suffered through a divorce. We must help them understand that God doesn’t throw anything away. He uses everything for our good and his glory (cf. Rom 8:28, Eph 1:11). Often from our greatest struggles, comes our greatest ministries. Second Corinthians 1:3-4 says,

Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we may be able to comfort those experiencing any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

Application Question: Which view of divorce and remarriage seems to have the most biblical support to you and why? What is the weakness of the views you reject?


With the advent of sin, marriage has been severely damaged, and sadly, most, in some way or another, have been affected by divorce. How can we protect our marriages?

  1. To Protect Our Marriages, We Must Be Delivered from Permissive Views about Divorce
  2. To Protect Our Marriages, We Must Understand God’s Original Plan for Marriage
  3. To Protect Our Marriages, We Must Understand What Breaks the Marriage Covenant

Copyright © 2019 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

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Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.

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1 Green, M. (2001). The message of Matthew: the kingdom of heaven (p. 95). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

2 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 308). Chicago: Moody Press.

3 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 308). Chicago: Moody Press.

4 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (pp. 113–114). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

5 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 70). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

6 Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary (Vol. 1, p. 70). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

7 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 114). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

8 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (p. 309). Chicago: Moody Press.

9 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (pp. 116–117). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

10 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (pp. 119–120). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

11 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1768). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

12 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (p. 120). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

13 Hughes, R. K. (2001). The sermon on the mount: the message of the kingdom (pp. 116–117). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Related Topics: Christian Life, Kingdom

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