April 22 – Jesus on Divorce

It was said, “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce”; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.—Matt. 5:31–32

Jesus no more approves of divorce than did Moses (cf. Matt. 19:6). Adultery, another reality God never condoned, is the only reason under the law that allows for dissolving of a marriage, with the guilty party to be put to death (Lev. 20:10). Because Jesus mentions this here and again in Matthew 19:9, God must have allowed divorce to replace execution as the penalty for adultery at some time during Israel’s history.

Divorce is never commanded; it is always a last resort, allowed when unrepentant immorality has exhausted the patience of the innocent spouse. This merciful concession to human sinfulness logically implies that God also permits remarriage. Divorce’s purpose is to show mercy to the guilty party, not to sentence the innocent party to a life of loneliness. If you are innocent and have strived to maintain your marriage, you are free to remarry if your spouse insists on continued adultery or divorce.

Jesus does not demand divorce in all cases of unchastity (immorality, primarily adultery in this context), but simply points out that divorce and remarriage on other grounds results in adultery.

Our Lord wants to set the record straight that God still hates divorce (Mal. 2:16) and that His ideal remains a monogamous, lifelong marriage. But as a gracious concession to those innocent spouses whose partners have defiled the marriage, He allows divorce for believers for the reason of immorality. (Paul later added the second reason of desertion, 1 Cor. 7:15.)

How could you be an encouragement to a couple whose marriage is on the verge of collapse? How could you show Christ’s mercy to those who have been wounded the greatest?[1]

Divorce and Remarriage


And it was said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of dismissal”; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (5:31–32)

The many confused and conflicting ideas in our day about the biblical teaching on divorce are not caused by any deficiency in God’s revelation but by the fact that sin has clouded men’s minds to the straightfoward simplicity of what God has said. When people read God’s Word through the lenses of their own preconceptions or carnal dispositions, a confused and perplexing picture is the only possible outcome. The confusion is not with God but with man.

British physician David Graham Cooper in his book The Death of the Family (New York: Pantheon, 1970) suggests the best thing society could do is to abolish the family altogether. He claims it is the primary conditioning device for a Western imperialistic world view. An advocate of women’s liberation, Kate Millet, maintains in her book Sexual Politics (New York: Doubleday, 1970; Ballantine, 1978) that “the family unit must go because it is the family that has oppressed and enslaved women.” City after city and even some states are passing legislation that grants increasing rights to homosexuals. From every side the family is being directly attacked or indirectly undermined.

Yet the famous Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Armand Nicoli says that

certain trends prevalent today will incapacitate the family, destroy its integrity, and cause its members to suffer such crippling emotional conflicts that they will become an intolerable burden to society. If any one factor influences the character development and emotional stability of an individual, it is the quality of the relationship he or she experiences as a child with both parents. Conversely, 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)

Dr. Nicoli identifies six trends or situations that are the most destructive of the family. They include mothers of young children working outside the home, frequent family moves, the invasion of television, lack of moral control in society, and lack of communication in the home. But he says that by far the major cause of emotional problems and the major detriment to the family is divorce. “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.”

The harmful effects of divorce on children, parents, and on the family and society as a whole would be more than enough reason to be concerned about the problem. But the supreme tragedy of divorce is that it violates God’s Word.

In many churches the problems of divorce and remarriage are minimized or ignored. Church standards and policies either do not exist or they are accommodated to the whims of the congregation. Often when those problems are faced, they are not dealt with on a firm scriptural basis. Many church leaders admit having no clear understanding of what the Bible precisely teaches about the rightness and wrongness of divorce.

Only four basic interpretations of the biblical data on divorce and remarriage are possible, and all four are found to be held in various Christian circles. The strictest view is that divorce is not permissible under any circumstance or for any reason. The opposite position contends that both divorce and remarriage are permissible for any reason or none. The other two views lie between those extremes. One is that divorce is permitted under certain circumstances but remarriage is never permitted. The other is that both divorce and remarriage are permitted under certain circumstances.

The Bible, of course, actually teaches only one of those four possibilities, and that view is taught by Jesus here in Matthew 5:31–32. Like many people today, the Jews of Jesus’ day, typified by the scribes and Pharisees, had developed their own standards for divorce and remarriage-which they taught as God’s standards. In this passage Jesus continues to correct the erroneous doctrines and practices of the rabbinic traditions and to replace them with the truth.

The Teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees

And it was said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of dismissal.” (5:31)

It was said continues to refer to “the ancients” mentioned in verse 21, the rabbis and scribes who had developed the commonly accepted Jewish traditions over the previous centuries-primarily during and after the Babylonian Exile. This is our Lord’s way of setting in place what is antithetical to the teaching of God.

In Jesus’ day the dominant rabbinic position on divorce, and by extension on remarriage, was the most liberal of the four views mentioned above: permissibility on any grounds. The only requirement was the giving of a certificate of dismissal.

By that period of Jewish history divorce had become so easy and casual that a man could dismiss his wife for such trivial things as burning his meal or embarrassing him in front of his friends. Often the husband did not bother to give a reason, since none was required.

The rabbinic justification for such easy divorce was based on an erroneous interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1–4, the Bible’s first mention of a certificate of dismissal.

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 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.

The focus of that passage is not the question of whether or not divorce is permitted. It does not provide for divorce, much less command it. It is rather the statement of a very narrow, specific law that was given to deal with the matter of adultery. It shows how improper divorce leads to adultery, which results in defilement. Through Moses, God recognized and permitted divorce under certain circumstances when it was accompanied by a certificate, but He did not thereby condone or command divorce. God’s permission for divorce was but another accommodation of His grace to human sin (see Matt. 19:18). “Because of your hardness of heart,” Jesus explained to the Pharisees on another occasion, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matt. 19:8).

The certificate did not make the divorce right, but only gave the woman some protection. It protected her reputation from slander and provided proof of her legal freedom from her former husband and her consequent right to remarry.

A literal rendering of the Hebrew word translated “indecency” in Deuteronomy 24:1 is “the nakedness of a thing.” Some interpreters say it refers to repeated indecent exposure, but Alfred Edersheim (Sketches of Jewish Social Life [(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], pp. 157–58) says that the word includes every kind of impropriety and describes a generally poor reputation.

The only other place in the entire Bible where that Hebrew term is used is in the previous chapter of Deuteronomy: “And you shall have a spade among your tools, and it shall be when you sit down outside, you shall dig with it and shall turn to cover up your excrement. Since the Lord your God walks in the midst of your camp to deliver you and to defeat your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy; and He must not see anything indecent among you lest He turn away from you” (23:13–14). “Anything indecent” comes from the same Hebrew word as “indecency” in 24:1.

The meaning of the word in Deuteronomy 24 includes every kind of improper, shameful, or indecent behavior unbecoming to a woman and embarrassing to her husband. It cannot refer to adultery, because death was the penalty for that, even if it occurred during the engagement period (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22–24).

What kind of indecency, then, would lead to the certificate of dismissal? It must have been sins of unfaithfulness and promiscuity that stopped just short of actual adultery. At any rate, Deuteronomy 24 is clear that if the woman remarried and was divorced again, or even if her second husband died, she could not be remarried to her first husband, because she had been “defiled.”

The Lord’s primary purpose in Deuteronomy 24:1–4 was not to give an excuse for divorce but to show the potential evil of it. His intention was not to provide for it but to prevent it. Verses 1–3 are a series of conditional clauses that culminate in the prohibition of a man ever remarrying a woman he has divorced if she marries someone else and is separated from that second husband either by another divorce or by death. Because her first divorce had no sufficient grounds, her second marriage would be adulterous. Even if her second husband died, she could not go back to her first, “since she [had] been defiled” (v. 4). She was defiled (more literally, “disqualified”) because of the adultery brought about by her second marriage-which is the primary point of the passage. Moses is saying, then, that the divorce for indecency or promiscuity creates an adulterous situation.

In God’s eyes, therefore, the granting of a certificate did not in itself make a divorce legitimate. Far from approving divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1–4 is a strong warning about it. The passage suggests, or perhaps assumes, that a divorce on proper grounds, accompanied by a certificate, was permitted. It does not offer a divine provision for divorce, but rather shows that divorce often leads to adultery. Even on the grounds of adultery, divorce was tolerated in the law of Moses only as a gracious alternative to the capital punishment that adultery justly deserved (Lev. 20:10–14).

The most popular school of rabbinic tradition in Jesus’ day, as reflected in the Targum of Palestine (written in the first century a.d.), interpreted Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 24:1 as a command. What God had provided as reluctant permission had been turned into a legal right.

The Teaching of the Old Testament

The Bible’s teaching on divorce cannot be understood apart from its teaching on marriage. Immediately after woman was created, God declared, “For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Marriage was God’s plan, not man’s, and in the deepest sense every couple that has ever been married, whether believers or not, participates in a union established by the Creator Himself. Marriage is God’s institution.

From the beginning, God intended monogamous, life-long marriage to be the only pattern of union between men and women. “Cleave to” carries the idea of firm, permanent attachment, as in gluing. In marriage a man and woman are so closely joined that they become “one flesh,” which involves spiritual as well as physical oneness. In marriage God brings a husband and wife together in a unique physical and spiritual bond that reaches to the very depths of their souls. As God designed it, marriage is to be the welding of two people together into one unit, the blending of two minds, two wills, two sets of emotions, two spirits. It is a bond the Lord intends to be indissoluble as long as both partners are alive. The Lord created sex and procreation to be the fullest expression of that oneness, and the intimacies of marriage are not to be shared with any other human being.

One of the most immediate and damaging consequences of the Fall was the destruction of the blissful, loving, and caring relationship between husband and wife. In the garden, Adam and Eve had ruled together, with him as the head and her as his helper. Adam’s headship was a loving, caring, understanding provision of leadership. Eve’s role was that of loving, willing submission and support. Both were totally devoted to the Lord and to each other.

But problems in marriage, like problems in every other area of earthly existence, began with the Fall. Man’s first sin brought a separation from God, a separation of man and nature, and a separation of husband and wife. God’s curse on Eve and all women after her was, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you shall bring forth children; yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). The curse on Adam and every man after him was, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you” (v. 17).

The Fall distorted and perverted the marriage relationship. Henceforth the wife’s “desire” for her husband would no longer be the desire to help but the desire to control-the same desire that sin had for Cain (see Gen. 4:7, where the identical Hebrew construction is used). For the man’s part, his “rule” over his wife henceforth would be one of stern control, in opposition to her desire to control him. At the Fall the battle of the sexes began, and women’s liberation and male chauvinism have ever since been clouding and corrupting the divine plan for marriage.

One of the most tragic consequences of that battle is the propensity to divorce. But in light of God’s perfect plan for marriage-the plan followed but for a brief while in the Garden of Eden-it is clear that divorce is like a person cutting off an arm or leg because he has a splinter in it. Instead of dealing with whatever trouble arises between husband and wife, divorce tries to solve the problem by destroying the union.

On an even deeper level, divorce destroys a union that God Himself has made. That is why Jesus said unequivocally, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Matt. 19:6). The union of marriage is one which God, as its Creator, never desires to be broken. Divorce is a denial of His will and a destruction of His work.

The seriousness with which God takes marriage is seen in the penalty for adultery. All sexual intercourse outside of marriage is sinful and defiling, but any illicit sexual activity that involved married persons was punishable by death (Lev. 20:10–14). Two of the Ten Commandments relate to the sanctity of marriage. Not only is the act of adultery forbidden but even the intent of it in coveting another man’s wife (Ex. 20:14, 17).

In fact, nowhere is God’s high view of the sanctity of marriage more clearly emphasized than in the last of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Ex. 20:17). For a married person even to desire another partner was a grievous sin. As Jesus affirms in Matthew 5:28, adultery is forbidden to both the body and the mind. In Leviticus 18:18 God went a step further and forbade polygamy Every violation of lifelong, faithful, monogamous marriage was forbidden by the divine law.

God established marriage as the physical, spiritual, and social union of one man with one woman, a life-long, indivisible union that is never to be violated and never to be broken. He confirms His absolute hatred of divorce in Malachi 2:13–16.

And this is another thing you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with groaning, because He no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. Yet you say, “For what reason?” Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit. And what did that one do while he was seeking a godly offspring? Take heed then, to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. “For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”

The man who puts away his wife does what God hates. He “covers his garment with wrong,” a literal rendering of which would be, “he covers his garment with violence.” It brings to mind the picture of a man who murders someone and is caught with the blood of his victim spattered on his clothes. “Not one has done so [divorced] who has a remnant of the Spirit,” Malachi tells us. That sentence represents a Hebrew phrase that is difficult to translate, but I believe that rendering gives the right sense of it. God’s Holy Spirit is never a party to divorce.

Many people today claim to be led of the Lord to get a divorce and to have His peace after they leave their spouses. But, “I hate divorce,” God continues to declare through Malachi, “so take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously” (v. 16). Without exception, divorce is a product of sin, and God hates it. He never commands it, endorses it, or blesses it.

The Pharisees used an erroneous interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1–4 to defend their idea of divorce, conveniently interpreting that passage as a command for divorce (Matt. 19:7). In fact, the passage neither commands nor condones divorce. It simply recognizes it as a reality, as do other Old Testament passages. In Isaiah 50:1, for example, God challenges the nation of Israel for their spiritual fornication: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Where is the certificate of divorce, by which I have sent your mother away? Or to whom of My creditors did I sell you? Behold, you were sold for your iniquities, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away.’ ”

Jeremiah 3:1 contains a similar reference: “God says, ‘If a husband divorces his wife, and she goes from him, and belongs to another man, will he still return to her? Will not that land be completely polluted? But you are a harlot with many lovers; yet you turn to Me,’ declares the Lord.”

Far from encouraging divorce, most references to divorce in the Old Testament put restrictions on it. For example, Deuteronomy says about a husband who falsely accuses his bride of “shameful deeds” that “they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give it to the girl’s father, because he publicly defamed a virgin of Israel. And she shall remain his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days” (22:14, 19). In the same chapter we read: “If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days” (vv. 28–29).

Divorce was clearly taught to be a defilement for a priest. “They [priests] shall not take a woman who is profaned by harlotry, nor shall they take a woman divorced from her husband; for he is holy to his God. … A widow, or a divorced woman, or one who is profaned by harlotry, these he may not take; but rather he is to marry a virgin of his own people” (Lev. 21:7, 14).

In the Old Testament God does not condone or bless divorce. In one unique case (Ezra 10:3–5) God actually commanded divorce through His priest, Ezra, because the existence of His covenant people was threatened (cf. Deut. 7:1–5); but that single exception did not negate His hatred of divorce. Ezra’s call for divorce is an extreme historical example of following the lesser of two evils, and it applied only to the covenant nation of Israel in that one situation.

The entire book of Hosea is a picture of God’s forgiving and patient love for Israel, dramatized by Hosea’s forgiving and patient love for his wife, Gomer. Gomer prostituted herself, forsook Hosea, and was unfaithful to him in every possible way. But the heart of the story is that Hosea was faithful and forgiving no matter what she did, just as God is faithful and forgiving no matter what His people do. God looks on the union of husband and wife in the same way He looks on the union of Himself with believers. And the way of God should be the way of His people-to love, forgive, draw back, and seek to restore the partner who is willing to be restored.

Although Hosea’s and Gomer’s marriage is primarily a symbol of God’s relationship to His people Israel, it is also an apt illustration of how to deal with a wayward marriage partner. God’s forgiving love seeks to hold the union together. That is certainly Christ’s attitude in His relationship to the church, as He repeatedly forgives His bride and never casts her away (Eph. 5:22–23).

There must be forgiving love and restoring grace in a marriage. That alone makes marriage a proper symbol of God’s forgiving love and restoring grace. That is the magnificence of marriage. To pursue divorce is to miss the whole point of God’s dramatization in the story of Hosea and Gomer, the whole point of our Lord’s love for His church, and thus the whole point of marriage. God hates divorce.

The Teaching of Jesus

but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (5:31–32)

Jesus affirms exactly what Moses taught in Deuteronomy 24:1–4-that unjustified divorce inevitably leads to adultery. To the legalistic, self-righteous scribes and Pharisees Jesus was saying, “You consider yourselves to be great teachers and keepers of the law, but by allowing no-fault divorce you have caused a great blight of adultery to contaminate God’s people. By lowering God’s standards to meet your own, you have led many people into sin and judgment.”

The Pharisees interpreted Moses’ instructions to mean, “If you find something distasteful about your wife, divorce her.” They saw the paperwork as the only issue. Jesus knew their warped interpretation and thus confronted them.

The error in their thinking is highlighted in 5:27–30. They prided themselves on the fact that they did not commit adultery. But Jesus said, “I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has commiteed adultery with her already in his heart” (v. 28). In verses 29–30 He showed them that no sacrifice is too great to maintain moral purity. Then in these present verses (31–32), He again indicts them for adultery because they were committing it by putting away their wives. The ease of divorce made it possible to avoid open adultery. Only a little paperwork was required to legalize their lust.

But Jesus confronted them with a proper interpretation of God’s law. He said that every time a man without proper cause turned his wife loose to remarry, he forced her into adultery, which made him guilty also. In addition, the man who married the former wife and the woman who married the former husband were likewise guilty of adultery. The result was multiplied adultery! Jesus’ whole point is that divorce leads to adultery.

Some interpreters maintain that apoluō (divorces), which has the basic meaning of let loose, or let go free, refers only to separation, broken engagement, or desertion. A common view of this passage is that Jesus is referring only to divorce during the betrothal period, such as that mentioned in Matthew 1:18–19. But when used in the context of a man and wife, the common meaning of apoluō was always divorce-not merely separation or the breaking of an engagement (cf. Matt. 19:3, 7–9; Mark 10:2, 4, 11–12; Luke 16:18).

The term cannot refer only to a broken betrothal for several reasons. First, the background of the passage is Deuteronomy 24, which does not deal with broken betrothal but with broken marriage. To take the betrothal period as a limiting factor in a passage that deals strictly with marriage and divorce (based on its Old Testament roots) gives an illegitimate and nonhistorical restriction. If Christ has in mind the betrothal period He would then be adding something to the Old Testament standard, rather than commenting on and affirming it-which would have been out of step with His stated purpose for this section of the Sermon on the Mount (see 5:17–18).

Second, the indissoluble union in a Hebrew marriage began at betrothal, not consummation, as illustrated by Joseph and Mary. He was her “husband” during the betrothal period. The Old Testament punishment of death for adultery was the same for both participants, and it applied whether the adultery was committed during betrothal or after consummation of the marriage. Prior to betrothal, a man and woman who committed fornication were only required to marry each other (Deut. 22:28–29). In that cultural context betrothal was clearly an element of marriage.

Third, it is clear that the Jews who heard Jesus use the term understood Him to mean divorce, because there was never any need to clarify what was meant. Deuteronomy 24:1–4, to which Jesus refers in Matthew 5:31, had to do strictly with marriage and divorce, not betrothal, mere separation, or desertion. Jesus was not adding to or modifying what Moses had said, but simply clarifying it.

By divorcing his wife on grounds other than adultery, a husband makes his innocent former wife commit adultery if she remarries-as it is assumed she would. Further, as Jesus makes explicit in Mark 10:11–12, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.” Jesus’ statement that whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (cf. Luke 16:18) completes the picture. A man or woman who has no right to divorce has no right to remarry. To do so initiates a whole chain of adultery, because remarriage after illegitimate divorce results in illegitimate and adulterous relationships for all parties involved.

When the detrimental effects on children, other relatives, and society in general are added, we see that few practices match divorce for destructiveness. It not only causes further sin but also confusion, resentment, hatred, bitterness, despair, conflict, and hardships of every sort.

In Matthew 19 Jesus quotes God’s declaration in Genesis 2:24 that “For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19:5). “Consequently,” He goes on to say, “they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (v. 6). The Pharisees’ response, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate and divorce her?” (v. 7) again betrayed their misinterpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1–4. Jesus had to explain, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way” (v. 8). God never “commanded” divorce but only “permitted” it as a concession to sinful, self-willed mankind. It is true that in Mark 10:5 Jesus speaks of Deuteronomy 24:1–4 as a commandment. But the teaching there is not a command to divorce but a command not to remarry the defiled person who has been divorced.

The condition except for unchastity is not a way out that God provides, but is the only grounds for divorce that He will recognize. Some say that this “exception clause” allows divorce for Jews only, and only in the case of the sin of consanguinity (marrying a near relative, a practice forbidden in Lev. 18). This view is propounded by those who wish to believe that there are no biblical grounds at all for divorce by Christians. They point out that the exception clause appears only in Matthew and maintain that to interpret it otherwise would be to contradict or add to the law governing the sin of adultery.

Of course, God has only to say a thing once for it to be true, so the fact that the exception clause appears only in Matthew has no bearing on proper interpretation. In fact, the exception clause would have been inappropriate in the contexts of Mark 10 and Luke 16. In Matthew 5 and 19 the clause is included to correct the Pharisees’ misrepresentation of God’s law regarding adultery. The exception clause in those passages amplifies Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Mark 10 and Luke 16-it does not contradict it.

Jesus gives no more approval for divorce than did Moses. The Old Testament ideal has not been changed. The permissions for divorce in the Old Testament economy were designed to meet the unique, practical problems of an imperfect, sinful people. God never condoned divorce, because what He joins together is not to be separated by man (Matt. 19:6). Adultery, another reality that God never intended, is the only thing that can break the bond of marriage. In fact, under the Old Testament law, adultery would necessarily dissolve a marriage, because the guilty party was put to death (Lev. 20:10).

Because Jesus specifically mentions divorce being permissible on the ground of adultery (Matt. 5:32; 19:9), and because He also specifically says that He did not come to contradict or annul the least part of the law (5:18–19), it seems evident that sometime during Israel’s history divorce was allowed to take the place of execution as legitimate penalty for adultery. No Old Testament passage specifically authorizes divorce, but that does not mean God did not give specific revelation about it. Based on His own recognition and regulation of divorce, and His divorce of Israel and Judah (Jer. 3:8), we can assume that divine instructions for divorce had been given orally or by written revelation not preserved in Scripture. God divorced Israel and Judah for spiritual adultery rather than put them to death. Also Joseph, a righteous man, was prepared to divorce Mary rather than stone her for her presumed adultery (Matt. 1:19).

Why did God allow divorce to replace the death penalty? The answer may be that Israel had so completely immersed herself in immorality that there was not sufficient desire for righteousness left in the people to carry out executions for that offense. Ultimately, God in His mercy chose Himself not to enforce the death penalty. That is consistent with the divine nature revealed in Jesus, who challenged the Pharisees who were about to stone a woman for adultery and then forgave her Himself (John 8:7). Apart from the death penalty, divorce became the divine alternative, tolerated only because of the hardness of the human heart, as Jesus states in Matthew 19:8.

Divorce was never commanded, even for adultery. Otherwise God would have given His notice of divorce to Israel and Judah long before He did. A legitimate bill of divorce was allowable for adultery, but it was never commanded or required. It was a last resort-to be used only when unrepentant immorality had exhausted the patience of the innocent spouse, and the guilty one would not be restored.

If God permitted divorce rather than death as a merciful concession to man’s sinfulness, why would He not also permit remarriage, since remarriage would be perfectly allowable under the original law of death for the adulterer? After all, the purpose of divorce was to show mercy to the guilty party, not to sentence the innocent party to a life of loneliness and misery.

Unchastity (porneia) refers to any illicit sexual intercourse, whether or not either of the parties is married. It was a broad term that included adultery, as other texts using a form of porneia indicate (“immorally,” 1 Cor. 10:8; “immorality,” Rev. 2:14; cf. 1 Cor. 5:1). Because Matthew 5:31–32 focuses on marriage and divorce, the primary unchastity involved here would be adultery. But porneia also included incest, prostitution, homosexuality, and bestiality-all of the sexual acts for which the Old Testament demanded the death penalty (Lev. 20:10–14). In other words, any of those corrupt and perverted sexual activities was a permissible ground for divorce.

Jesus does not advocate divorce in such cases, much less demand it. He simply says that divorce and remarriage on any other grounds always leads to adultery. As God, Jesus hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), but by implication He acknowledges that there are times when it does not result in adultery. The innocent party who has made every effort to maintain the marriage is free to remarry if his or her spouse insists on continued adultery or divorce.

Jesus sets the record straight that God still hates divorce and that His ideal is still monogamous, life-long marriage. But as a concession to sin and as a gracious provision for those who are innocent of defiling the marriage, He allows divorce on the single ground of unchastity.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul adds one more legitimate ground for divorce and subsequent remarriage. “But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away” (7:12–13). After giving the reason for that instruction, he adds, “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace” (v. 15). The Greek word translated “leave” (chōrizō) was often used for divorce. Thus if an unbelieving spouse deserts or divorces a believer, the believer is no longer bound and is free to remarry. (For further study on this passage, see the author’s commentary First Corinthians [Chicago: Moody, 1984], pp. 164–68.)[2]

Jesus Censures Divorce (5:31, 32)

5:31 Under OT law, divorce was permitted according to Deuteronomy 24:1–4. This passage was not concerned with the case of an adulterous wife (the penalty for adultery was death, see Deut. 22:22). Rather, it deals with divorce because of dislike or “incompatibility.”

5:32 However, in the kingdom of Christ, whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery. This does not mean that she automatically becomes an adulteress; it presupposes that, having no means of support, she is forced to live with another man. In so doing she becomes an adulteress. Not only is the former wife living in adultery, whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

The subject of divorce and remarriage is one of the most complicated topics in the Bible. It is virtually impossible to answer all the questions that arise, but it may be helpful to survey and summarize what we believe the Scriptures teach.


Divorce was never God’s intention for man. His ideal is that one man and one woman remain married until their union is broken by death (Rom. 7:2, 3). Jesus made this clear to the Pharisees by appealing to the divine order at creation (Matt. 19:4–6).

God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16), that is, unscriptural divorce. He does not hate all divorce because He speaks of Himself as having divorced Israel (Jer. 3:8). This was because the nation forsook Him to worship idols. Israel was unfaithful.

In Matthew 5:31, 32 and 19:9, Jesus taught that divorce was forbidden except when one of the partners had been guilty of sexual immorality. In Mark 10:11, 12 and Luke 16:18, the exception clause is omitted.

The discrepancy is probably best explained as that neither Mark nor Luke record the entire saying. Therefore, even though divorce is not the ideal, it is permitted in the case where one’s partner has been unfaithful. Jesus allows divorce in this case, but He does not command it.

Some scholars see 1 Corinthians 7:12–16 as teaching that divorce is acceptable when a believer is deserted by an unbeliever. Paul says that the remaining person is “not under bondage in such cases,” i.e., he or she is free to obtain a divorce (for desertion). The present writer’s opinion is that this case is the same exception granted in Matthew 5 and 19; namely, the unbeliever departs to live with someone else. Therefore, the believer can be granted a divorce on the scriptural grounds only if the other party commits adultery.

It is often contended that, although divorce is permitted in the NT, remarriage is never contemplated. However, this argument begs the question. Remarriage is not condemned for the innocent party in the NT only for the offending person. Also, one of the main purposes of a scriptural divorce is to permit remarriage; otherwise, separation would serve the purpose just as well.

In any discussion of this topic, the question inevitably arises, “What about people who were divorced before they were saved?” There should be no question that unlawful divorces and remarriages contracted before conversion are sins which have been fully forgiven (see, for example, 1 Cor. 6:11 where Paul includes adultery in the list of sins in which the Corinthian believers had formerly participated). Pre-conversion sins do not bar believers from full participation in the local church.

A more difficult question concerns Christians who have divorced for unscriptural reasons and then remarry. Can they be received back into the fellowship of the local church? The answer depends on whether adultery is the initial act of physical union or a continued state. If these people are living in a state of adultery, then they would not only have to confess their sin but also forsake their present partner. But God’s solution for a problem is never one that creates worse problems. If, in order to untangle a marital snarl, men or women are driven into sin, or women and children are left homeless and penniless, the cure is worse than the disease.

In the writer’s opinion, Christians who have been divorced unscripturally and then remarried can truly repent of their sin and be restored to the Lord and to the fellowship of the church. In the matter of divorce, it seems that almost every case is different. Therefore, the elders of a local church must investigate each case individually and judge it according to the Word of God. If, at times, disciplinary action has to be taken, all concerned should submit to the decision of the elders.‡[3]

(3) Divorce and remarriage (5:31–32)


31–32 The introductory formula “It has been said” is shorter than all the others in this chapter and is linked to the preceding by a connective de (“and”). Therefore, though these two verses are innately antithetical, they carry further the argument of the preceding pericope. The OT points toward insisting not only that lust is the moral equivalent of adultery (vv. 27–30) but that divorce is as well. This arises out of the fact that the divorced woman will in most circumstances remarry (esp. in first-century Palestine, where this would probably be her means of support). That new marriage, whether from the perspective of the divorcée or the one marrying her, is adulterous.

The OT passage to which Jesus refers (v. 31) is Deuteronomy 24:1–4, whose thrust is that if a man divorces his wife because of “something indecent” (not further defined) in her, he must give her a certificate of divorce, and if she then becomes another man’s wife and is divorced again, the first man cannot remarry her. This double restriction—the certificate and the prohibition of remarriage—discouraged hasty divorces. Here Jesus does not go into the force of “something indecent.” Instead he insists that the law was pointing to the sanctity of marriage.

The natural way to take the “except” clause is that divorce is wrong because it generates adultery except in the case of fornication. In that case, where sexual sin has already been committed, nothing is laid down, though it appears that divorce is then implicitly permitted, even if not mandated (see the paraphrase in Stonehouse, Witness of Matthew, 203).

The numerous points for exegetical dispute (e.g., the meaning of porneia [“fornication,” or, in the NIV, “marital unfaithfulness,” GK 4518], the force of the “except” clause, and the tradition history behind these verses and their relationship to 19:3–9; Mk 10:11–12; Lk 16:18) are treated more fully at 19:3–12. The one theory that must be rejected here (because it has no counterpart in 19:3–12) is that which takes the words “makes her an adulteress” to mean “stigmatizes her as an adulteress (even though it is not so)” (B. Ward Powers, “Divorce and the Bible,” Interchange 23 [1938]: 159). The Greek uses the verb, not the noun (cf. NIV, “causes her to become an adulteress”). The verbal construction disallows Powers’s paraphrase.[4]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2008). Daily readings from the life of Christ (p. 121). Chicago: Moody Publishers.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (pp. 307–318). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1221–1222). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[4] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, pp. 185–186). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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