We are beginning a two-part series today on the subject of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. What does the Bible say about such? That will be our primary objective. We will study what Jesus had to say on the subject in Matthew chapters 5 and 19. I believe the truth on this subject is plain enough, although it certainly is not popular with many today.
With that being said, let us begin by reading Matthew 19:3-12 and then comment on the verses one at a time - "The Pharisees also came to Him [Jesus], testing Him, and saying to Him, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?' 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.' His disciples said to Him, 'If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.' But He said to them, 'All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother's womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.'"
On this occasion, the Pharisees approached Jesus to ask Him a question - "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?" (Matt. 19:3). The Pharisees came to Him, as they usually did, not to learn from Him or to become His followers, but to test Him. Their real motive here is to try to trap Jesus with His words. They knew that Jesus had previously taught something different than Moses taught in Deuteronomy 24 (cf. Matt. 5:32). If Jesus reaffirms His teaching here, then they would try to make it appear that He despised the Mosaic law. On the other hand, if He supported what Moses wrote, then they would show the multitude that He was contradicting His former teaching and was therefore inconsistent and unworthy of being followed. They are doing their best to put Jesus into a dilemma!
In the first century there were several distinct views of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 regarding divorce and remarriage. The school of Shammai taught that the phrase "some uncleanness in her", found in 24:1, referred to sexual unfaithfulness and that divorce should only be sought for this. In contrast, the disciples of Hillel taught that this phrase referred to anything of indecency that the husband found in the wife; for example, if the wife did even the smallest thing wrong, like overcooking his food, he could divorce her if he chose. Hillel's interpretation was likely popular with many Jewish men because it made divorce and remarriage very easy.
According to Mark 10:3, Jesus answers their question with a question - "What did Moses command you?" They correctly state that "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her" (Mark 10:4).
Jesus then addresses their comment and question by going back beyond Deuteronomy 24 (and thus beyond the various interpretations of it). He goes back to God's original intent for marriage when He created woman. In Matthew 19:4,5, Jesus alludes to Genesis 1:27, 2:24, and 5:2 as He shows that God created the two genders, male and female. But, God created only one man and one woman for a reason. He demonstrated to Adam and Eve that they were made for each other exclusively. God didn't give Adam ten wives; He gave him only one. God therefore established the basic unit of society in which each person would have one partner and that partner would be of the opposite gender. This institution is called marriage. It brings a man and a woman together, and they are united. They no longer cling to their parents but to one another. They share a special unity that is approved by God.
Since man and woman leave their parents when becoming husband and wife, it follows that the marriage relationship is superior to one's parental relationship. Also, through marriage the pair becomes one flesh so that a man is as much joined to his wife as he is to his own body (and vice versa for the woman). It should be noted that the only thing that can sever a parent-child bond is death, and the only thing that can sever one from his physical body is death (cf. James 2:26). Hence, one should not be surprised that the marriage bond can only be rightly separated by death (in addition to the God-given exception found in Matt. 19:9).
Jesus states in Matthew 19:6 that when a man and woman who are properly qualified for marriage enter into holy matrimony that they are joined together by God. Because of this fact, Jesus stressed that man must not separate what God has united. Divorce was never a part of God's original plan for the marriage relationship!
Thus, Jesus' answer to the Pharisees' question was a strong "No." Man is not to separate what God has joined together; God never intended for marriages to end in divorce. Therefore, it is not lawful for man to divorce his wife for just any reason. Jesus is calling on mankind to stop doing what they had been doing regarding divorce; He is calling a halt to the practice of ignoring God's original plan for marriage.
The Pharisees respond with another question - "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" (Matt. 19:7). The basic argument of the Pharisees is this: "If what You say about divorce is true, then why did Moses authorize something different in Deuteronomy 24? Jesus, You have to be wrong because You're contradicting Moses!"
Jesus answered by saying - "Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so" (Matt. 19:8; cf. Mark 10:3,4). Jesus said that God permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts; that is, because of their extreme rebelliousness God allowed His original plan for marriage to be relaxed. He had made a temporary concession through Moses in Deuteronomy 24 (though He had never changed His original intent for marriage). This temporary relaxation included divorce as well as polygamy. Neither of these things were a part of God's original intent, but He saw fit to allow them for the time being. Perhaps God made these temporary concessions out of compassion for women. God knew the hearts of the Hebrew men and how hard many of them were. Under the old law, if God had not made the temporary concession through Moses, some speculate that many Hebrews would have probably refused to marry at all, instead choosing to live in sexual immorality rather than find themselves unhappily married without any options. Some commentators have even suggested that women would have been secretly murdered by their husbands if there was no possibility for divorce.
When Jesus stressed the truth that "from the beginning it was not so", He was emphasizing the fact that God's law for marriage had never been taken away, it had merely been exempted through Moses temporarily. But, that temporary exemption was about to cease! The real issue here was not that Jesus' teaching was in conflict with what Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 24. In truth, Moses' teaching in that passage was in conflict with what God had initially revealed in Genesis 2!
Before continuing, it should be pointed out that God's original plan for marriage encompassed mankind as a whole, and since Jesus' teaching was a restoration of Heaven's original plan, then His teaching here on marriage, divorce, and remarriage would logically encompass mankind as a whole (not just Christians, as some believe)! There is more evidence of this truth found in the next verse.
In Matthew 19:9, Jesus, in anticipation of the New Testament dispensation, restores marriage to the level of God's original intent. He had done so earlier in 5:32. He is no longer concerned with what Moses had permitted. He speaks by His own authority (not Moses'; cf. 7:29) and declared - "I say to you." Jesus is about to explain what God's original intent for marriage was; He is about to proclaim how things were supposed to be "from the beginning."
Jesus doesn't restrict this teaching to just a particular few. He purposefully speaks in general to include everyone when He uses the word "whoever." This verse was applicable to the Pharisees as well as His followers, and it applies to all who are alive even today (just as the following verses in Matthew, which make use of the same term, apply to everyone - 5:21; 11:6; 12:32; 16:25).
"Whoever divorces" - Christ is talking about a person who would officially obtain a "document of divorce" according to the legal system under which he lived.
"Whoever divorces except for sexual immorality" - Sexual immorality is another term for "fornication." The Greek word is defined as "every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse." It includes sexual intercourse with any person or animal other than one's rightful spouse.
"Whoever divorces except for sexual immorality and marries another" - The Greek word for marriage is sometimes used in an accommodative way. For example, if one gets a divorce (but not for sexual immorality), he may remarry according to civil law. However, God still views the original couple as joined together, and thus the new "marriage" is nothing more than adultery. An important example of such can be seen in Mark 6:17. According to that verse, Herodias was still Philip's wife in God's eyes; notice how she was referred to there. The fact that Herod "married" her according to man's laws did not legitimize what they were doing before God--they were living in adultery! John declares this in Mark 6:18 by saying - "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."
"Whoever divorces except for sexual immorality and marries another commits adultery" - Adultery is defined as "sexual intercourse with someone other than one's rightful spouse." Thus, adultery is a proper subset of fornication; that is, all adultery is fornication, but not all fornication is adultery. The Greek tense used here is especially significant. The idea is not that the adultery is a one-time thing. No, an individual who is in an unscriptural marriage keeps on committing adultery every time he is intimate with his new "spouse."
This teaching applies equally to men and women (cf. Mark 10:11,12). Whoever divorces and marries someone else commits adultery, unless one's spouse is guilty of sexual immorality and divorced for such. Jesus says that sexual immorality is the one and only reason for a person to divorce their spouse and remarry (and still be innocent before God). But, Jesus doesn't command divorce in these circumstances. The injured spouse has the right, but not the obligation, to end the marriage in divorce. If the unfaithful spouse repents, they must be forgiven (Luke 17:3), but this does not mean that the innocent spouse must maintain this marriage relationship. The innocent spouse may choose to end it in divorce, but he or she does not have to. In many cases, it would probably be best, especially where children are involved, not to divorce the guilty spouse unless it cannot be avoided.
One might rightly wonder why Jesus says that adultery is committed if someone divorces and remarries when their reason is not because of sexual immorality. It is because they have added to their marital status when they are not free to do so, since, in God's eyes, they are still joined to their first companion until death (cf. Rom. 7:1-3; I Cor. 7:39)! Marriage to a divorced woman is prohibited because she is still another man's wife (and vice versa for men)! Such a situation definitely goes against God's original intention for marriage. God wants one man and one woman to be together for life, with only one exception. Yes, men and women can get divorces in court today for other reasons besides sexual immorality, but God doesn't approve of such divorces! The Lord does not approve of man-made laws that defy His righteous will. That is why, when these individuals "marry" someone else, they are committing adultery. In God's eyes, the original husband and wife are still joined together! In His eyes, fornication is the only reason for divorce. He doesn't accept any other reason! Thus, if one divorces for any other reason and they want to please God, they must remain unmarried or restore their original relationship (cf. I Cor. 7:10,11). It's as simple as that.
Most people who read this passage for themselves have no difficulty in understanding what it says. They can see that Jesus is setting forth a general truth with one (and only one) exception on the subject of divorce and remarriage. The general truth is: Whoever divorces and marries another commits adultery. The one exception is: One may remarry and not commit adultery if they divorce their spouse because of the spouse's sexual immorality. Jesus is plainly teaching that divorce, for any other reason, does not give one the right to remarry.
Of course, even though the teaching is simple, the application is sometimes exceedingly difficult. Some out of "compassion" and others out of a desire to remarry will twist this Scripture (and others) in an attempt to support a view which they believe is not quite so strict. It is sad but true that, when men desire to find a way around some biblical teaching, they are usually quite proficient at doing so. Admittedly, this topic is a serious problem in our society today. Many become involved in marriages, divorces, and remarriages (sometimes several times) and they find themselves and their lives quite at odds with this simple teaching of Jesus. We cannot help but feel compassion for them and the mistakes they've made concerning their marital condition, but we must remember that compassion doesn't change God's truth! My compassion and love for someone does not and cannot override the simple truth of God's word.
Let us talk about John the baptizer a little more. He did not subscribe to the false idea that adulterers (like Herod & Herodias) could simply say, "I'm sorry," and then be permitted to continue to live in adultery. If he had believed it, he would not have lost his head because he would have kept his mouth shut (cf. Matt. 14:4). It is unfortunate that silence seems to be the course that many choose to follow today on this issue. Do they think that this problem will go away if they ignore it or choose not to address it?
Friends, it is true that when a husband and wife divorce for unscriptural reasons (i.e., for some reason other than fornication) neither of them are guilty of the sin of adultery unless they "fool around" or get remarried. However, even if both remain single in such circumstances that is not to say that no sin has been committed. God hates divorce because it breaks a covenant; it violates one's marital vows (cf. Mal. 2:14-16; Num. 30:2; Eccl. 5:4,5). Additionally, unscriptural divorce unnecessarily promotes the temptation to commit adultery (cf. I Cor. 7:5).
Finally, it should be noted that although fornication is the only basis upon which a valid divorce may be obtained, that is not to say that the divorce document must absolutely specify this. In some places the law does not even allow such! Nevertheless, fornication must be the real reason for the divorce. We will conclude this study in next week's feature lesson. Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.