Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Jesus' Radical Teachings on Divorce

The Words of Jesus

If anyone doubts that Jesus’ teaching on divorce was shocking and new, look at the response of the men who listened to him give it. In Matthew 19:10, the disciples heard Jesus’ teaching and responded that if that is right, “it is better not to marry.” They had trouble conceiving of a marriage in which the husband did not have the right to send away a wife who no longer met his expectations.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce built upon, but was also a radical departure from the Deuteronomy passage. Prior to the law, divorce was based on the whims and desires of the husband, unrestrained by any stricture. The standard of divorce was subjective, based on the will of the man. Deuteronomy limited that capricious standard. The man was required to find “something indecent” in his wife – some moral flaw that justified the divorce. Divorce was still a matter of the husband’s will, as all he had to do was give his wife a writ and send her away, but now he was required to have some grounds for the action.

How was Jesus’ teaching different? He took divorce out of the whimsical subjective control of the man and gave an absolute standard. Christian men were only allowed to divorce a wife on the grounds of marital infidelity. Adultery broke the bonds of marriage and was the only exception Jesus gave to the standard of marriage.

There are four passages in which Jesus refers to divorce, and all carry the same basic prohibition against divorce and remarriage. This is Jesus’ first radical teaching – he reestablished the original intent of marriage as a lifelong commitment between a man and woman. We will examine each passage, and then draw conclusions for our study.

Why the Differences?

The first question to address is why only Matthew records the divorce exception. In Matthew 5:31-32 (part of the Sermon on the Mount) Jesus lays down the standard that divorce is not permissible, except on the grounds of infidelity. Then, in Matthew 19:1-12 we see a lengthy exchange between Jesus and some Pharisees in which they discuss the Deuteronomy passage. Again, Jesus includes the adultery exception to the law of permanent marriage. Mark 10:1-12 is a separate account of what is clearly the same discussion. The two accounts are nearly identical, except that no divorce exception is granted, even on the grounds of adultery. Luke 16:18 repeats the teaching of Mark 10:11-12 but does not include the context of the discussions, simply including the teaching in a series of statements that confront the Pharisees. Our question is why there is an adultery exception only in Matthew.

We can dismiss some of the more common solutions, if we accept the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. We cannot accept that either Matthew nor Mark or Luke got the teaching of Jesus wrong. Any solution we have must take seriously the truth of each passage.

One solution has been to say that the adultery exception was a textual error. It was not part of the original text and was added later by a scribe to “clarify” the text. The problem is that the textual evidence is pretty clear that Matthew did, in fact, include it in the original manuscript. The textual evidence does not support a textually-based explanation.

The simplest explanation is probably the best one. Matthew and Mark both recorded accurately the teaching of Jesus, but neither was attempting to give a full transcript of the message. Jesus gave the adultery exception in his teachings. Matthew recorded it. Mark did not. Mark was not trying to correct Matthew’s teaching. Both texts are correct. Jesus said the words recorded in both. Matthew just records more what Jesus said.

The conclusion of all this is clear. Jesus did, in fact, include the adultery exception as a part of his teaching on divorce.

The Words of Jesus

We now turn our attention to the four passages in which Jesus teaches about divorce.

Passage 1: Matthew 5:31-32

This passage occurs in a series on how Jesus Christ has both fulfilled and surpassed the Law of Moses. He raised the standard on murder and adultery. The law prohibited murder; Jesus said hatred in the heart was just like murder, and just as sinful in God’s eyes. The law prohibited adultery; Jesus prohibited lust in the heart. He was raising a higher standard than the Mosaic Law had; a standard of the heart not just the outward behavior.

In the passages that follow, Jesus deals with Old Testament and traditional Jewish teachings on making oaths and on retaliation. He replaced the Lex Talionis (eye for eye) with the “turn the other cheek” and “go the second mile” standard. He then gave the teaching on loving your enemies. All of these are explicitly raising the bar on the teachings of the law.

That is precisely what Jesus has done in Matthew 5:31-32. He has taken the teaching of Deuteronomy 24 and substantially raised the bar. His ways are higher than the way Israel lived under the law.

He mentions the certificate of divorce; then promptly does away with it. A follower of Christ could no longer just give his wife a piece of paper. Unless the bond of marriage had been broken with infidelity, he must remain married to his wife. Jesus did not outlaw divorce, but he severely limited it.

Passage 2: Matthew 12:1-10

We will look in depth at the passage in Matthew, and then briefly mention Mark 10:1-12. They cover almost exactly the same ground and put forward the same teachings. We will not give special mention to Luke, since it only repeats the teachings of Matthew and Mark and gives no new perspective on the discussion. The most significant difference, as we have already established, it that Mark did not choose to include Jesus’ adultery exception as part of the teaching.

Jesus has left Galilee and gone down to the region of Judea, across the Jordan River. Large crowds followed him and he healed many. The Pharisees, always looking to undermine Jesus or trap him in some misspoken word, posed a question to him. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any reason?” They were, essentially, asking him if the Shammai or Hillel schools were correct in their teachings. Jesus responded much like the angel did when Joshua asked him whose side he was on. The angel said, “I’m not on either side, I’m in charge.” Jesus said that he was not on the side of either group, but was establishing a new teaching that would render the discussion pointless. Rather than argue over what “some indecency” means in Deuteronomy 24, he established a new and clear standard.

His first response was to take them back to Genesis 2:24 and reestablish the divine intent of marriage. Divorce was not normal to God’s plan. He intended a man and woman to join together and stay married as long as they both lived. God takes this man and woman and joins them together as one. They are not two separate people anymore but one. That is when Jesus lays down his fundamental, revolutionary, shocking teaching. “Do not divide what God has joined together.” God joins two people in marriage. We should not divide them. As a Christian I should not seek to or initiate the breaking of my marriage bond. It should be sacred to me. Again, this was a radical departure from anything that was being taught in any branch of Judaism.

The Pharisees responded by going back to Deuteronomy 24. They realized that Jesus was teaching something very different from what that passage taught. Look carefully at how they worded their question. “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” To them, this was a command of God, an expression of the way that things should be. Jesus corrected that very quickly. Moses gave that teaching “because of the hardness of your hearts.” Moses did not “command” divorce, but “permitted” it in special circumstances because of the effect of sin on human life.

He then makes a very clear point. “From the beginning it was not so.” Moses and the law may have permitted a man some freedom in seeking a divorce, but that was not the original intent of God when He created us male and female and ordained marriage on this earth. Divorce never pleases God, but is permitted in cases in which sin has destroyed a marriage covenant.

Then, Jesus lays out his radical new teaching. If you divorce and remarry except on the grounds of adultery, you become an adulterer yourself. Mark adds that if your wife remarries, she will become an adulterer as well.

It should be noted here that since Israel was no longer a sovereign nation, the Old Testament requirement of execution for adultery was no longer widely in place. The Jews could not execute without the permission of the Romans, though what is today called “honor killing” may well have taken place from time to time.

The disciples understood what Jesus was saying, but they did not like it. Jesus was saying that no matter how annoying, or undesirable, or bossy a wife becomes, marriage is ended only by death, except in the case of adultery. If a man married, it was a permanent decision and they did not much like that.

Jesus responds with a very strange discussion of being a eunuch. A eunuch, here, is one who chooses not to marry. Jesus seems to be laying the groundwork for the teaching on marriage that Paul later laid down in full. Marriage is blessed by God, but singleness has its advantages as well. Jesus also makes it clear that this teaching is meant to be understood and applied by “those for whom it is intended” – the people of God, those who have the Holy Spirit’s power to make marriage work.

As mentioned earlier, Mark’s discussion is nearly identical to Matthew’s, though he leaves out a few details, most notably the adultery exception. Luke uses the words of Jesus in Mark, but leaves out all the details.

What Constitutes “Adultery”?

If Jesus permitted divorce only on the grounds of adultery, what constitutes adultery? That is more difficult than it might seem at first. Is an “emotional affair” adultery? Is “making out” adultery? What about some of the practices that are so common today but do not involved sexual intercourse? Our nation was consumed in the later 1990’s about the question of whether the president had committed adultery with “that woman” or whether the things he did with her constituted sex. Did he cheat on his wife?

The word in Matthew 19:9 is “porneia” and is a general and very broad word used to describe all illicit sexual activity. Various attempts have been made to give this word a more specific meaning (some say it only refers to immorality during the formal betrothal period, or the discovery that the wife was too close a relative to continue the marriage). The fact is that porneia is used in both those ways, but there is no evidence here to limit the meaning to a particular branch of illicit sex. Porneia included premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, bestiality, incest and a host of sexual practices too deviant to mention. It is a broad word, not a specific word.

Porneia is used to describe a life of wanton immorality, prostitution and general moral impurity. The sense here seems to be a continual lifestyle of infidelity, which breaks the marriage bond and covenant. It is not that a single act of adultery is not a significant issue, but it may not reach the standard that is in view here. A Christian couple can rebuild a marriage after an affair, and should certainly try. Porneia would imply a lifestyle of immorality. If one partner in a marriage refuses to be bound by the marriage covenant and engages in a lifestyle of immorality, the marriage covenant is effectively broken.

Marital fidelity requires much more than just abstaining from intercourse with others. It involves a mind and heart of fidelity and commitment to the marriage. When someone engages in an emotional affair, it is certainly a violation of the marriage covenant, though it may fall short of the standard for divorce. The use of pornography is certainly a violation of the marriage covenant, but also probably does not justify divorce. But acts of sexual expression other than intercourse would clearly classify as adulterous and immoral under this word. A man is permitted to hold and kiss and touch only one woman, his wife, and she is bound by the same. Any form of sexual expression or fulfillment is forbidden with anyone except one’s spouse. The continual and unrepentant lifestyle of immorality is the only biblical justification for divorce that Jesus gives.

Even if Jesus permitted divorce, the Christian must realize that the greatest expression of divine nature is to forgive sinners and restore what sin breaks. If a spouse cheats, divorce may be permissible, but that does not make it always the best option. It is best to forgive and let God rebuild the marriage, if that is possible.


1. Jesus left no doubt that the original intent of God was marriage that lasted a lifetime. One man, one woman; joined together by God for as long as life lasts. Jesus left no doubt that while the Law permitted a man to divorce his wife with a certificate, that was what God permitted, but not what He intended.

2. Immorality is the only grounds upon which Jesus permitted divorce. Immorality implies a lifestyle of sexual immorality which effectively breaks the marriage covenant. The innocent party is not bound to a covenant which the other party refuses to honor.

3. If a divorce takes place on any grounds other than that of “porneia” it is not valid in the eyes of God. If the parties of that invalid divorce remarry, their marriage is adulterous, because God sees them as still married to the previous spouse.

4. Jesus made it clear that exceptions to divorce are permitted by God, but divorce is not something that brings pleasure to God. Since our goal is to bring pleasure to God, not just to do what God permits, it is incumbent on the Christian to do whatever he or she possible can to preserve a marriage, to forgive sin and sinners and to make marriage permanent. A Christian should only seek divorce, even in the event of immorality, as a last resort when every attempt at reconciliation has been rebuffed.
I have heard Christians say, “one time is all it would take. If he tries it I will throw the bum out.” That is an understandable human sentiment. But God is not pleased with “one strike and you’re out” ethics. Sin is sin and it is always serious. Even a brief moment of infidelity breaks trust and works to destroy a marriage. But redemption brings forgiveness and Christians work to rebuild what sin breaks, not to throw it away.

5. It is important to note that the teaching of Jesus limits the right of remarriage. If divorce is not on biblical grounds, remarriage is prohibited. On the other hand, if a divorce is granted on biblical grounds, the presumption is that remarriage is then permitted. A divorce on biblical grounds is the ending of marriage covenant and implies the right of the innocent party to remarry.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce is shocking and revolutionary. He held up the original intent of marriage clearly and uncompromisingly. He also made a single exception to his rule of permanent marriage, adultery. In that case, divorce was permissible in God’s eyes.

In the epistles, Paul builds on Jesus’ teaching and adds some new perspectives, revealed to him by God.

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