After Jesus discussed “mental adultery,” He turned to what we might call “legalized adultery” – marriage, divorce, and remarriage for unscriptural reasons.
I. Legalized adultery
Jesus first made reference to what had been taught in the past: Matthew 5:31 – “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’”
This is based on Deuteronomy 24:1–4: “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency (uncleanness) in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and if the latter husband turns against 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 husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.” NASB
The law of Deuteronomy 24:1 was given to provide a degree of protection to the divorced wife and to discourage divorce. Larry Calvin wrote – “In Old Testament times, Jewish men were marrying women, exhausting their dowries, and then turning those women out on the streets to fend for themselves. The Jewish men were then going out and finding themselves another woman with another dowry.”
Moses said that it was not enough for a man to just declare “we’re divorced” to his wife. The divorce had to be recognized legally just as the marriage had been, so a certificate of divorce – a legal document – must be issued, and properly served (put in her hands). He also made it clear that a certificate of divorce could not be written for just any reason – there must be grounds for the divorce! All this was evidently designed to make a husband think twice before rashly divorcing his wife.
To break this law was an abomination before the Lord. Jeremiah 3:1 – “The Lord said to the people of Israel: If a divorced woman marries, can her first husband ever marry her again? No, because this would pollute the land…”
II. Matthew 19 and Mark 10
Jesus then moved from what His listeners had been told by the rabbi’s to what He taught: Matthew 5:32 – “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”
Luke 16:18 – “For example, a man who divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery. And anyone who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
To gain insight into Jesus’ teaching here, it may help to look at a longer version of the same teaching in Matthew 19:3–9 (same as in Mark 10:2-12). Matthew 19:3 – “Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
The Jews of that day had a high ideal of marriage, but they had a low view of women. “A wife was bought, regarded as property, used as a household drudge, and dismissed at pleasure.” (Bruce)
Their low view of women meant that their high ideal of marriage was constantly compromised, and those compromises were made into law.
Deuteronomy 24:1 mentioned “some indecency” or “uncleanness” in the wife that prompted the husband to divorce her. In the first century, one group of Jewish teachers (Rabbi Shammai) understood that “uncleanness” meant “sexual immorality,” and said that was the only valid reason for divorce. This was the strict and unpopular view. But Rabbi Hillel understood “uncleanness” to mean “any sort of discretion,” anything that made the husband unhappy, ranging from burning the bread to getting old and wrinkled to embarrassing her husband in public. This was the lenient and popular view (with men).
William Barclay on Rabbi Hillel’s teaching on divorce: “They said that it could mean if the wife spoiled a dish of food, if she spun in the streets, or went with unbound hair, if she talked to a strange man, if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband’s relations (parents) in his hearing, if she was a brawling woman (defined as a woman whose voice could be heard in the next house). Rabbi Akiba even went the length of saying that it meant if a man found a woman whom he liked better and considered more beautiful.”
The Rabbis had many sayings about bad marriages and the bad wife. They said that the man with a bad wife would never face hell, because he has paid for his sins on earth. They said that the man who is ruled by his wife has a life that is not life. They said that a bad wife is like leprosy to her husband, and the only way he could be cured is by divorce. They even said, “If a man has a bad wife, it is a religious duty to divorce her.”
So in their question, the Pharisees tried to get Jesus to side with one teaching or the other. If He agreed with the lax school of Rabbi Hillel, it was clear that Jesus did not take the Law of Moses seriously. If He agreed with the strict school of Rabbi Shammai, then Jesus might become unpopular with the multitude, who generally liked access to an easy divorce.
III. The exception Jesus gave
The Pharisees wanted to talk about divorce and rabbinical opinions, but Jesus went back to the Scriptures and talked about God’s plan for marriage. God’s basic plan for marriage is “one man, one woman, for life.”
Matthew 19:4-9: “And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
But Jesus goes to the heart of the matter in Deuteronomy 24:1. Moses did not command divorce, Moses permitted it because of the “hardness” of the offending party who was unfaithful to their spouse. It was also permitted because of the “hardness” of the offended party who was unable to forgive and restore a damaged relationship – divorce is always evidence of a sinful, hard heart! The root cause of all divorces is “selfishness.”
Jesus carefully and properly defined “uncleanness” as “sexual immorality.” This word is translated from the word “porneia,” a comprehensive term that refers to “illicit sexual intercourse” in general and covers all sexual immorality (fornication).
In saying, “God made them,” Jesus asserts God’s “ownership” over marriage; it is God’s institution, not mans, so it is God’s rules that apply. And here is God’s rule: “If a married person divorces and remarries, he or she is guilty of adultery. The only exception to that rule is if one’s marriage partner is guilty of sexual immorality (fornication), which means sexual intercourse with another individual.”
IV. But what about…
There are many reasons people give today to justify divorce that do not fulfill the Biblical allowance for divorce. Incompatibility, not loving each other anymore, irreconcilable differences, brutality, abuse, general unhappiness, conflict, addiction, poverty, or misery, etc., are not grounds for divorce, though they may be proper grounds for a separation and consequent “celibacy within marriage.”
1 Corinthians 7:10-11: “But for those who are married, I have a command that comes not from me, but from the Lord. A wife must not leave her husband. But if she does leave him, let her remain single or else be reconciled to him. And the husband must not leave his wife.”
Paul recognizes (without at all encouraging) that one might “depart” in such circumstances, but they cannot consider themselves “divorced,” with the right to “remarry,” because their marriage covenant has not been broken for what God considers to be Biblical cause. If God does not recognize the promise being broken, then it is not broken.
Marriage, as a promise made to our spouse and before God and the world, is a binding promise, and cannot be broken at our own discretion.
As God looks down from heaven, He does not have three categories: single, married, and divorced. He has two categories: single and married. You are either bound under a marriage vow, or you are not. If you are, you can’t marry another. If you are not, you are free to marry in the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:39 – “A wife is not free as long as her husband lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wants, if he is a Christian.”
Romans 7:1-3: “Now, dear brothers and sisters—you who are familiar with the law—don’t you know that the law applies only while a person is living? For example, when a woman marries, the law binds her to her husband as long as he is alive. But if he dies, the laws of marriage no longer apply to her. So while her husband is alive, she would be committing adultery if she married another man. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law and does not commit adultery when she remarries.”
In the days of Jesus, the Rabbis taught that it was the duty of a godly man to divorce his wife if she displeased him. Both Moses and Jesus make it clear that marriage is intended to be permanent. God permits divorce in certain circumstances without holding it against the offended party, but He never commands it, and it cannot be for just any reason. Jesus said that one can get a divorce, not that one must get a divorce. Under the best of conditions, a divorce is devastating to a family. Jesus’ purpose was to discourage divorce and to protect marriage.
Jesus’ main point was that divorce is the destruction of the holy institution of marriage and should never be taken lightly and should never be considered good. Any teaching on divorce needs to be balanced with teaching on forgiveness and reconciliation.
I believe that Jesus would say, “If God can reconcile you to Himself after all you have done, it should be easy for people to do the same thing.” He would tell us to not let minor irritations become major grievances, that our marriages can weather any storm if our values reflect God’s values.
VI. Divorce and the gospel of grace
The Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 teaches us that people who get their lives in terrible spiritual predicaments can receive forgiveness from God and be fully restored. The Gospel of Christ is designed by God for every sinner, in every country of the world, regardless of how far he may be from God’s ideal, to get from where he is now to where God wants him to be.
God spelled out the way grace is applied in Isaiah 55:7 – “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.” Note, the wicked is to forsake his way and return to the Lord and to His way. When he does, God will have mercy and will pardon, but only if we stop the sin. Remember what Jesus told the woman caught in the act of adultery in John 8:11 – “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
VII. God hates divorce
Malachi 2:13-16: “Here is another thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, weeping and groaning because he pays no attention to your offerings and doesn’t accept them with pleasure. You cry out, “Why doesn’t the Lord accept my worship?” I’ll tell you why! Because the Lord witnessed the vows you and your wife made when you were young. But you have been unfaithful to her, though she remained your faithful partner, the wife of your marriage vows. Didn’t the Lord make you one with your wife? In body and spirit you are his. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. So guard your heart; remain loyal to the wife of your youth. “For I hate divorce!” says the Lord, the God of Israel. “To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.”
God has clearly stated how he feels about the destruction of the marriage institution, and wants us to understand some very basic principles about this painful subject:
1) God hates divorce.
2) God never intended for a married couple to get a divorce.
3) Divorce is never the ultimate will of God, reconciliation is.
4) Anytime divorce occurs, someone sins!