Jesus Teaching on Divorce

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Jesus Teaching on Divorce

Matthew 5:31-32

To say that I come to this section of scripture with some reluctance would be an understatement. Coming to a passage such as this, reinforces the value of systematic study of the teaching of scripture. Is it not true to say that this is the kind of subject that preachers tend to avoid? It is not for the preacher to preach some parts of the Word and ignore others. We should not shy away from difficulties. That being said, divorce is both a complex and controversial subject. Even more, it is a subject that touches people’s emotions at a deep level. There is almost no unhappiness so heartrending as the unhappiness of a bad marriage, and there is nothing so tragic as the degeneration of what God meant for love and fulfillment into a non-relationship of bitterness, discord and despair. So today I want to preach with a sensitivity to the fact that some of you suffer with the deepest of pain because of divorce, and lovingly tell you the bottom line of what the Bible says about divorce. So with an amount of anxiety and fear I will now give you “Jesus on Divorce.”

These two verse can hardly be called the sum total of Jesus teaching on divorce. In fact Matthew 19: 3-9 records a much fuller version of Jesus’ teaching. “The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

It is important to note that at the time of Jesus there were two competing schools of thought on divorce being taught by prominent rabbis: Hillel and Shammai. Both interpreted the Old Testament view of divorce from Deuteronomy 24:1-4 differently, “When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.” The key part of the passage that they were interpreting came from verse one: “she find no favour in his eyes.” Shammai was the more conservative of the rabbis who taught that the only ground for a divorce was a major trespass of the marriage, mainly some sort of “indecency.” Hillel was the more liberal of the two and also more popular. He stated that a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason whatsoever. He argued that “she find no favour” could mean a lot of things including if the wife were to burn the supper. One of his later students said that this phrase could be applied to a situation where woman was “plain looking” and so the man found a more attractive woman to marry, then he could justify a divorce.

Understandably, the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees led to a divorce epidemic. There was not the respect of women in that culture that there is today. Even still, ease at which the Jews divorced one another was a reflection of the Greco-Roman society in which they lived. Just as the Christian divorce rate is virtually indistinguishable from the divorce rate of society in general today.

Inter: So what can we draw from the text about divorce today?

I.       Man is preoccupied with the grounds for divorce; Jesus is concerned with the institution of marriage.

Look again at Mathew 19. Their question to Jesus was, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” What are the legitimate grounds for divorce? Jesus reply to them was no reply at all. He in reply asks them if they had read the Old Testament concerning the creation of man and woman and institution of marriage in Genesis 1 and 2. These passages tell us two things about marriage.

A.   Marriage is exclusive
The passage says “a man…and his wife.”

B.    Marriage is permanent
A man shall cleave to his wife. The comments to follow show Jesus’ emphasis on the permanence of marriage. “The two shall be one” and “What God hath joined, let no man put asunder.” God’s ideal for marriage was permanence. Man was created perfect sin was not a factor in the life of man, so God created marriage to be permanent union.

II.    Man calls Moses provision for divorce a command; Jesus called it a concession to the hardness of human hearts.
The Pharisees responded to Jesus by asking, “Why did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce?” Jesus also quoted the scribal version of the teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Both of these were garbled versions of the Mosaic provision, typical of the Pharisees disregard for what Scripture really said and implied. Their emphasis on the grounds of divorce and the “command” to divorce missed the whole teaching of Deuteronomy 24. The whole passage hinges on a whole series of conditional statements that can be brought out in the following paraphrase:

After a man has married a wife, if he finds some indecency in her, and if he gives her a certificate of divorce and divorces her and she leaves, and if she marries again, and if her second husband gives her a certificate of divorce and divorces her, or if her second husband dies, then her first husband who divorced her is forbidden to remarry her…” The thrust of the passage is to prohibit the remarriage of one’s own divorced partner. The reason for this regulation seems to be threefold: 1) This prevents a person from committing adultery again by divorcing their second spouse in order to remarry their first spouse. 2) To prevent husbands from making a hasty decision. 3) To prevent the exploitation of women. The only command in this passage is to not remarry your first spouse. There is certainly no command for a husband to divorce his wife, or even any encouragement to do so.

So how did Jesus respond to all of this? He explained that it was a provision given by God because of the hardness of man’s heart. This was not a divine command, but a divine concession. He even referred back to the institution of marriage by saying, “From the beginning it was not so.” Showing that even this divine concession was in principle inconsistent with the divine institution.

III. Man takes divorce lightly, Jesus said, with one exception, all divorce is adultery

Look back at Matthew 5:32. Now here is where you will get tripped up if you do not listen carefully to what I say. Many people teach that this passage indicates that divorce causes a woman to commit adultery because remarriage is assumed. That is not what the passage says. The passage says two distinct truths.

A.   Divorce itself causes adultery with one exception
It is not the taking if a new husband that made a woman commit adultery, since some women remained unmarried. Jesus maintains that the divorce itself creates adultery – metaphorically, not literally – through infidelity to the lifelong covenant of marriage. Here is where I need to explain a little. The characteristic of the Old Testament usage of adultery in the prophetic books, referred to one’s breaking their commitments to God. Two Old Testament passages show us God’s view of one breaking a covenant. Jeremiah 5:7, “How shall I pardon thee for this? thy children have forsaken me, and sworn by them that are no gods: when I had fed them to the full, they then committed adultery, and assembled themselves by troops in the harlots’ houses.” And Ezekiel 16:32, “But as a wife that committeth adultery, which taketh strangers instead of her husband!” Both of these passages refer to Israel’s unfaithfulness to the covenant that they had with God. They went after false God’s and broke their covenant with God. God called this adultery. Now the divorced person doesn’t seem to be living in permanent adultery, because the verb tense for “commit adultery” seems to indicate a one time action.

However, there is one exception to this teaching one divorce, that is, marital unfaithfulness. With marital unfaithfulness the covenant of marriage has already been broken by one party.

B.    Remarriage after a permissible divorce is allowed

Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 show that remarriage is permitted in very specific contexts. The other divorce passages of Jesus in Mark 10 and Luke 16 must be interpreted in their own contexts. The teaching of Jesus is very clear. One who has no right to divorce, has no right to remarry. Even then there is no indication that a second marriage after an illegitimate divorce is seen as permanently adulterous.

Now that we have heard some teaching on divorce, lets make some practical application.


A.   We must resist the permissiveness of our culture and solidly take our stand against divorce or remarriage on any grounds other than those taught in God’s Word.

B.    We must refrain from self-righteous judgmentalism...all of us are adulterers at heart

C.   We must be like Jesus and forgive those who have fallen or suffered divorce

D.  If your marriage is in trouble reconciliation is preferable to separation or divorce
It is interesting that this section is nestled in the Sermon on the Mount behind the section on the peacemakers and merciful. Chrysostom linked this passage with the beatitudes and commented in his sermon: “For he that is meek, and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that is his own?” God’s call to the troubles marriage is for reconciliation.

E.    Christians who are remarried should begin afresh to observe God’s standards by being faithful to their spouse.

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