In many respects, Jesus’ teaching on divorce in these verses is closely linked to the topic of adultery which he has just commented upon. One leads to the other in many other cases. It is also related to hate and murder, the first topic Jesus addresses. What does Jesus say about divorce?
To be able to explain this, we need to go back to the Jewish world of the first century. This is a world which was partially Jewish. But 300 years of Greek Hellenistic influence had also affected Jewish culture, even in the sect of the Pharisees. This led to a clash of values concerning adultery and divorce. In this world, divorce was seen as something a man could do to his wife, and adultery was something only a woman could be punished for. In other words, a double standard existed.
The Pharisees were not exempted from this duplicity. If anything, they were the definition of hypocrites in this area. There had been a great debate between the more conservative Pharisees which only allowed divorce in the case of unchastity on the part of the wife. If the man on his wedding night did not find the woman to be a virgin as her hymen had been ruptured, he could divorce her. No other cause of divorce was valid. But there were also a lot of “progressive” Pharisees who interpreted Moses to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any reason. Only in the Pharisees was this even an issue, as men in the Hellenistic world and mainline Jewish sects had already surrendered to the ideas of cohabitation outside marriage, adultery within marriage so long as it was the man and the woman was not another man’s wife, and sexual license for men.
Jesus in his views on adultery seems to side with the most conservative of the Pharisees here. He mentions what Moses had said concerning divorce which was the pretext of the progressive Pharisees for divorce. It is indeed in the Scripture. But what did God mean by allowing this?
As we have been examining this section of the Sermon on the Mount, we had noticed Jesus command that our righteousness had to exceed that of the Scribes and the Pharisees if one was to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We saw that the problem with the Pharisees went deeper than hypocrisy. The Pharisees were indeed guilty of not practicing what they preached, they also perverted the teaching of Scripture as well. We did not see this so much in the sections on murder and adultery. The problem there seemed to be that they Pharisees did not go far enough and only held to outward appearances and actions. But here, we see what is essentially a perversion of doctrine.
At another time when Jesus was directly confronted with the divorce issue (Matthew 19:8), Jesus gave a comment which is helpful to our understanding of what Jesus is saying here. Divorce was allowed by God as the lesser of two evils. Men’s hearts were so hard and cold to God that they would divorce their wives regardless of what God thought and said about it. To divorce a wife without a bill of divorcement was to leave a woman in that society without means. As what was considered to be used merchandise, she would be unable to marry another man or even make a living outside of prostitution. . On the positive side of marriage, Jesus reminded them that God’s purpose for marriage is clearly expressed in Genesis which is that one man and one woman should be united in love and marriage for life. The Scripture also says in Malachi that God hates divorce. So taking a verse in the Law out of context was essentially a great perversion from God’s will on the matter.
Jesus here clearly states with an authority equal to Scripture itself that any man that divorces his wife for any reason other than on the wedding night that he found that she was not a virgin and marries another is guilty of adultery if he were to remarry. The second half of the verse is a little more complicated to interpret. On a literal level, it seems that Jesus is calling the woman who has been divorced and marries also commits adultery. As she was the one dismissed, it would seem unfair to restrict her from remarrying, considering what her other options were. Some feel that what is being said is that the man who marries a divorced woman is the adulterer, but this does not make this interpretation any easier.
The interpretation starts to make more sense if we restrict the idea of divorce to premarital unchastity. In other words, when she lost her virginity, she in a sense became the husband of whatever man that was in the eyes of God. Paul seems to allude to this. It might be noticed in the other gospels, even the idea of her not being a virgin is mentioned as an exception to divorce.
Now that we have tried to explain what these verses meant in the context of Jesus’ day, what do they mean for us today? If we consider that the same plague of easy divorce exists today along with adultery and sexual license and cohabitation outside of marriage, the situation is essentially the same or even worse than then. The church has suffered from the rise of Pagan culture in today’s society. Over several hundred years, morals, especially sexual ones have been on the decline. Many in the church today twist the Scriptures just like the Pharisees did then to justify divorce. One of these gross perversions is to say that the problem back then was the double standard between men and women. Women should have the same right to divorce and infidelity that men de facto had back then. Is Jesus for equal opportunity to pervert the will of God between men and women? Indeed the issue of gender equality needs to be addressed, but this is not God’s way of doing it.
Not one jot nor tittle can fall from the words of Jesus any more than the Scripture of the Old Testament Jesus came to fulfill. To think that God has changed Him mind for the times is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture in both the Old and New Testaments. God hates divorce today as much as ever, and God’s purpose for marriage remains the same as it did in the beginning. Anyone who says otherwise is clearly perverting the will of God on the matter. The only thing that can be said is that God might permit divorce because of the hardness of our heart lest a worse outcome happen. In some cultures, men burn their wives in fire to escape marriage. In others, marriages are violent, and divorce the less of two evils. But God’s will is perfectly clear concerning divorce.
As in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes beyond the surface to the real problem of the wicked hearts of men and women. Trying to use Jesus to just give guidance on dealing with the moral trauma on the surface by passing laws and such to restrict divorce or even the more positive side of divorce prevention and marriage seminars is to fall short to some degree. By saying this, I am not saying that I am against making divorce more difficult through laws or the churches attempt to save marriages through seminars and teaching. But divorce, like murder, adultery, lies, and hate are the symptoms of a disease and not diseases in their own right.
If divorce is but a symptom of the disease, then treating it as being the disease itself is dangerous. It is like taking a painkiller to mask pain when the real problem the pain is trying to warn the person of is that of a serious disease. The person gets a very temporary relief from pain as the disease continues to spread. An aspirin or even codeine might make a toothache seem to go away, but the abscess is still there. Untreated toothaches can spread to other parts of the body and kill. The painkiller gives a false sense of security.
The real source of disease is sin. Sin is the willful rebellion against the will of God. The external manifestation of sin is divorce, hatred, murders, adultery, and the like vary from person to person. Some are able to drug the pain better than others. But the disease is still there in all of us. The bible clearly teaches that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”. The analgesic of self-righteousness might make us feel better, but under the surface, we continue to rot. The wages of this sin are death. Jesus and Scripture are clear that this death is more than physical. It is eternal separation from God. It is eternal hell. The church has largely failed to deal today with this sin problem, preferring to call it brokenness or not living up to one’s potential. In the meanwhile, billions are eternally perishing, even the so-called holiness people who have applied the external ointment of self-righteousness.
This disease cannot be treated by resolving to do better and try harder. The best this can do is to give one a false sense of security. This is what the Scribes and Pharisees so suffered from. Ant this is what we all suffer from and would perish from save for the grace of God. Our righteousness can not exceed that of the Pharisees and Scribes. The problem is that the more we strive to be righteous on our own terms, the more unrighteous and rebellious we become.
To substitute the ways of men for the will of God is the rebellion of sin itself. This is why those who seek to justify themselves wax worse and worse in sin. The only way that sin can be cured is from the inside. This cure is none other than Jesus Himself who died for our sin. It is Jesus alone who can take out the hard stony heart and replace it with a new one. This is the work of God’s grace and not of our own effort.
I understand as well as anyone that the symptoms of sin still appear in my life. These are not things I am proud of at all. But the Scriptures which cannot be broken promise that the disease of sin itself has been treated by the blood of Jesus Himself in our behalf. We must believe that the one who has started this good work in us, who has put death to death in us will continue to work in us until the day of Jesus Christ. The medicine has been applied. We may still show symptoms for a while, but we can be assured that these too will go away as God works out our sanctification in us. Paul tells us that we have already died once and for all in Christ and that our life is now hid in Christ in God.
So when we deal with the problems like divorce in our church, which is as much if not more of a plague within the church as outside, let us remove the beams of human wisdom that so easily blinds us to the real problem. We need to move away from a pragmatic Dr. Phil approach to dealing with symptoms and get back to preaching the full counsel of God which alone diagnoses the real problem. People do not want to hear the bad news about themselves, but hear they must, and that clearly and unequivocally. The bad news is that all people have the eternally terminal disease of sin. But there is good news. There is a cure available, the one and only cure. If we will just treat the disease at the root rather than at the leaves, the problems such as divorce will wither in the church.