“Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce” in Matthew 5:31-32
(This excellent sermon has been excerpted from Chapter 14 in R. Kent Hughes excellent book of sermons [pictured below] from Matthew 5-7 entitled: The Sermon On The Mount: The Message of the KIngdom. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2001.
A Sermon From R. Kent Hughes
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31–32
The February 1973 issue of McCall’s magazine carried an article entitled, “Is Anyone Faithful Anymore?” in which the author included the following story. A young wife was at lunch with eleven of her friends, who had been meeting together regularly to study French since their children had been in nursery school. As they conversed, one of the women, the group’s leader, asked, “How many of you have been faithful throughout your marriage?” Only one woman at the table raised her hand. That evening when the young wife told her husband about the conversation, she revealed that she was not the one who had raised her hand. He was shocked and devastated. “But I have been faithful,” she added. “Then why didn’t you raise your hand?” She replied, “I was ashamed.”
Times have changed, have they not? It used to be that most people would go to extremes to hide their infidelity, but today many people are ashamed of their fidelity. We live in a day when some experts speak of “healthy adultery” and the married faithful are less vocal than the unfaithful in promoting their ways.
I think no one would disagree that our contemporary culture is not intrinsically receptive to Biblical teaching regarding sexual relationships, marriage, and divorce. Because of this hostility, some preachers seem reluctant to speak out on these issues. Other ministers hesitate to address these topics because there is major disagreement about divorce in the church. Because there are numerous opinions as to what the Bible means, because the subject is complex, and because contemporary marital relationships are often incredibly tangled mazes, the subject becomes overwhelming. Sadly, we sometimes find it easier to just leave it unaddressed.
Some surveys indicate that eight of ten people are either directly or indirectly affected by divorce. The mere mention of the word divorce is painful to some. Many have been deeply wounded by broken marriages, and a discussion of the subject brings up memories and feelings they would like to forget. For these reasons preachers find little joy in preaching on the subject. But since Jesus brought it up right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest sermon ever preached, he obviously thinks it is an important subject, one we dare not ignore. To see this matter through Jesus’ eyes is good for us as individuals, good for the church, and good for society.
What is to be the Christian’s attitude regarding divorce? Is divorce always forbidden? Or is it sometimes allowable? What is the Christian position amidst the marital tragedy that surrounds us? As we answer these questions, I will try to be sensitive to those who are hurting. But at the same time I will do my best to be Biblical. The bottom line in all of this is, what does God’s Word say?
To understand our Lord’s statements on divorce, we must know something of the controversial social and theological context in which he made them. The controversy centered over the interpretation of a phrase in Deuteronomy 24:1, the stated ground of divorce: “If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce …”
That verse taught that a husband could divorce his wife if he found “something indecent” in her, and that is where the controversy lay. The burning question in Jesus’ day was, what does “something indecent” mean?” Those in the very liberal rabbinical school of Hillel interpreted “indecent” in the widest manner possible. They said a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner! They also extended “indecent” to mean a wife’s walking around with her hair down, speaking to men in the streets, or speaking disrespectfully of her husband’s parents in his presence. A wrong word about a mother-in-law and a woman could be out on the street! Rabbi Akiba, who was of this school of thought, went even further, saying that the phrase “becomes displeasing to him” (“she find no favor in his eyes,” kjv) meant that a man could divorce his wife if he found a woman who was more beautiful. Such husbands were bigoted and arrogant.
Fortunately, they were opposed by the school of Shammai, which limited “indecent” to offenses of marital impropriety short of adultery. “Indecent” did not refer to adultery, which was punished by execution, but rather suggested other types of sexual misconduct such as shameful exposure.
This conservative-liberal controversy over the meaning of “indecent” as a grounds for divorce was the backdrop of the Pharisees’ coming to Jesus about this matter. Matthew 19:3 describes the situation: “Some Pharisees came to test him. They asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?’ ” They were obviously trying to draw Jesus into the long-standing debate and then exploit his response for their own ends. Some even think they were hoping to use Jesus’ answer to get him in trouble with Herod because a negative answer would publicly align him with the point of view that caused John the Baptist to be beheaded. Significantly, Jesus did not begin by directly answering their question but took the conversation back to God’s creation design, giving us the most extensive teaching on divorce in the New Testament.
Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce (Matthew 19:4–12)
Jesus began by stating the ideal:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” (vv. 4, 5)
In the beginning divorce was inconceivable—and impossible. Jesus quoted lines from Genesis 2:23, 24 to emphasize two things. First, the intimacy of the marriage relationship. He says “the two will become one flesh.” There is no other intimacy like it. It is deeper than one’s relationship to one’s own children. When my children were born, there was an amazing bonding that took place when I saw those babies. In the ensuing months and years the bonding increased, and my wife and I are close to our children, interwoven with them. But we are not one flesh with them. The Scripture says that a man becomes “one flesh” with his wife. Marriage is the deepest human relationship.
After intimacy, the emphasis is on permanence. There was no thought of divorce—ever! God’s ideal was, and is, monogamous, intimate, enduring marriage. This is what he approves of. Anything less is a departure from the divine model. And the Fall did not change that ideal. We all know that some things possible before the Fall were not possible afterward. But regarding divorce, God’s standard did not change. We not only see this in the very first book of the Old Testament but also in the very last one:
“Why has God abandoned us?” you cry. I’ll tell you why; it is because the Lord has seen your treachery in divorcing your wives who have been faithful to you through the years, the companions you promised to care for and keep. You were united to your wife by the Lord. In God’s wise plan, when you married, the two of you became one person in his sight. And what does he want? Godly children from your union. Therefore guard your passions! Keep faith with the wife of your youth. For the Lord, the God of Israel, says he hates divorce.… (Malachi 2:14–16, tlb)
God hates divorce! Whenever divorce occurs, it is an aberration. It is something that was not meant to be. All of this talk about “creative divorce” is pseudoscientific and pseudo-liberated baloney. Those who become tired of their marriage because it is solid, predictable, and not very exciting should cast away their fantasies. Besides, there is nothing more boring than evil and its fruit.
The conversation between the Pharisees and Jesus is most enlightening. The Pharisees have alluded to the controversy in Deuteronomy 24, asking if a man may divorce his wife for any reason at all. Jesus has responded by saying divorce is not God’s ideal. Now the Pharisees respond with another reference to Deuteronomy 24: “ ‘Why then,’ they asked, ‘did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?’ ” (Matthew 19:7). The idea is this: “Moses made provision for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1. How then can you say it is not part of the ideal?” Note Jesus’ answer in verse 8: “Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.’ ”
Jesus’ answer corrects the Pharisees, for Moses only permitted divorce—he didn’t command it as the Pharisees asserted. What Moses did command was the granting of a divorce certificate for the woman’s protection. Without a certificate she could be subject to exploitation, even recrimination. The certificate also prevented the man from marrying her again. Thus she could not be treated like chattel. Marriage was not something one could walk in and out of. The reason God allowed divorce was the hardness of heart to which the men of Israel had succumbed. It was a divine concession to human weakness—reluctant permission at best!
Understanding this, we come to the very center of Christ’s teaching and the heart of our study—Jesus’ explanation as to when and why divorce is permitted: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9, nasb, emphasis mine).
Here everything rests upon the correct interpretation of the phrase “except for immorality”—and especially the single word, “immorality.” The Greek word here is porneia, from which we derive the English word pornography. The Greek dictionaries tell us that porneia means unchastity, fornication, prostitution, or other kinds of unlawful intercourse. When porneia is applied to married persons, it means marital unfaithfulness, illicit intercourse that may involve adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, and the like. We should note (and this is very important!) that all these offenses were originally punished by death under Mosaic Law. These sins terminated marriage not by divorce but by death. However, by Jesus’ time the Roman occupation of the country and its legal system had made the death sentence very difficult to obtain. Jewish practice had therefore substituted divorce for death. Thus the rabbinical schools of Hillel and Shammai were not discussing whether divorce was permissible for adultery. That was taken for granted by everyone. The point is, Jesus was far stricter than Hillel and Shammai because he superseded the teaching of Deuteronomy 24 and said that the only ground for which one may divorce his or her spouse is marital unfaithfulness. This is the simple, plain meaning of Jesus’ words in verse 9: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” That is, divorce is allowed if your mate is guilty of marital unfaithfulness. But if you divorce for any other reason and remarry, it is you who commits adultery. This is likewise the meaning of Jesus’ similar statement in the Sermon on the Mount:
“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress [if she remarries], and anyone who marries the divorced woman [a woman who has been divorced for something short of unchastity] commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:32)
Jesus’ teaching is clear. Some of the interpretations of these texts are unbelievably convoluted, but we must hold to the plain, unadorned sense of the text. Jesus meant what he said!
Some object that these exception clauses don’t jibe with Jesus’ teaching in two other Gospel passages, Mark 10:11, 12 and Luke 16:18, which contain no exception clauses. For instance, Mark records:
He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
No exception clauses! Because of this, some have argued that Mark represents the earlier and pure teaching of Jesus, but Matthew contains a scribal addition of the exception clause and is thus unauthentic. However, we must hold that it is authentic because none of the ancient manuscripts omit it—all of them have it. Why the difference between the Gospels of Matthew and Mark then? John Stott gives the answer:
It seems far more likely that its [the exception clause’s] absence from Mark and Luke is due not to their ignorance of it but to their acceptance of it as something taken for granted. After all, under the Mosaic Law adultery was punishable by death (although the death penalty for this offense seems to have fallen into disuse by the time of Jesus); so nobody would have questioned that marital unfaithfulness was a just ground for divorce.
The Lord Jesus Christ permitted divorce and remarriage on one ground and one ground only—marital unfaithfulness.
But notice that he permitted it—he did not command it. If you learn that your mate has been having an adulterous affair, it does not follow that you have license to seek a divorce. Too often men and women eagerly pounce on the infidelity of their mates as the opportunity to get out of a relationship they wanted to end anyway. It is so easy to minimize one’s own behavior and to maximize the sins of the other party. Many look for a way out instead of a way through the problems. I want to be careful not to minimize the sin of adultery like the man who said to his wife, “I don’t understand why you’re so disturbed. All I did was have an affair.” Yet I believe (this is my personal opinion) that we should not regard a one-time affair in the same way as a mate who persists in his or her adulterous ways and refuses to repent. Jesus’ exception clauses should be viewed like this: No matter how rough things are, regardless of the stress and strain, whatever is said about compatibility and temperament, nothing allows for divorce except unfaithfulness—and even then it is not to be used as an excuse to get out of the relationship.
The Radicalness of Jesus’ Teaching (Matthew 19:10–12)
Jesus’ teaching was radical. He had done away completely with the Mosaic divorce provision (Deuteronomy 24:1). This was revolutionary. The disciples’ response indicates just how radical Jesus’ teaching was: “The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.’ ” They were blown away. If the only ground for divorce was unfaithfulness, if none of the exceptions suggested by Hillel and Shammai were valid, it was better to stay single! The radicalness of what Jesus taught is further underlined in Matthew 5 by its being one of the six statements that begin with variations of “You have heard it said, but I tell you,” demonstrating the superior righteousness of Christ. The point of these statements is: This is the way a righteous person lives! Thus his or her marital relationship is supremely sacred. Nothing can sever it but unrepentant unfaithfulness—and then it is not an excuse for ending the marriage but is the sorrowful ground of divorce.
Such teaching is radical today. It is out of sync with our culture. Today even Christian counselors are recommending divorce and remarriage on grounds that are in opposition to the clear teachings of Christ. The sanctity of marriage has been corrupted by Christ’s own church and his authority flouted. Marriage has been trivialized into a provisional sexual union that dissolves when our puny love gives out. But this is not the way the righteous person approaches marriage. According to Christ, marriage demands total commitment that only death or the most flagrant, ongoing sexual infidelity can bring to an end.
Having seen Christ’s teaching, the question now is, does the Bible say anything else about divorce? The answer is yes.
Jesus’ Teaching and Paul’s (1 Corinthians 7:8–16)
In 1 Corinthians 7:8–16 the Apostle Paul gives consecutive advice, first to the unmarried (vv. 8, 9), then to married believers (vv. 10, 11), and finally to those who have mixed marriages—when one’s spouse is not a believer (vv. 12–16). It is on this final category that we will focus.
Paul begins his teaching by saying in verse 12, “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord) …” which has been misunderstood by some as meaning that Paul is saying that his teaching is not as authoritative as Christ’s. What he really means, however, is that what he is going to say was not said by Jesus in his earthly ministry but is now being said by Paul as part of his apostolic teaching. “He is saying in effect, ‘I am now going to deal with cases on which the Lord Himself did not give a verdict.’ ” Paul speaks with full apostolic authority. Notice what he says:
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. (vv. 12, 13)
Paul knew that in Corinth there were many marriages in which either the husband or wife had become a Christian after marriage, thus producing a spiritually mixed marriage. His advice was that the Christian must not leave his or her pagan spouse—it was not permitted. Then in verse 14 he gives the reason:
For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
The reason for staying together is that the unbeliever and the children will be influenced toward Christ by the life of the believer. I find this fascinating because we often think of the believer being corrupted by the unbeliever, and indeed sometimes this happens. But Paul lays down that it is generally otherwise! If you are in an unequal union, take heart! The general thrust is that you and your faith will prevail—though, sadly, not always.
Then in verse 15 we have Paul’s new teaching: “But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”
The sense is, if the unbeliever deserts and is determined not to come back, let him or her go. The Christian is “not bound in such circumstances,” which means that the believer is free from the marriage because the unbeliever has broken the marriage bond. The result is that the believer is free to divorce and remarry. The consistent use of the word “bound” in this passage and others means “is not bound in marriage.” There is no need to seek some other interpretation. This is the plain sense—this is what it means.
A Summation of Biblical Teaching
So we see that the Bible allows divorce for two reasons—marital unfaithfulness such as adultery and homosexuality, and the desertion of a believer by an unbelieving spouse.
As to the question of remarriage, the Scriptures allow it in three instances.
First, if one’s mate is guilty of sexual immorality and is unwilling to repent and live faithfully with the marriage partner, divorce and remarriage are permissible.
Second, when a believer is deserted by an unbelieving spouse, divorce and remarriage are again permitted.
And third, as an extension of the allowance for divorce and remarriage when deserted by an unbeliever, I personally believe that when someone has been married and divorced before coming to Christ, remarriage is allowed. Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” “New” here (kainos) means new in quality. “New” means what it says—really new, as contrasted to the old. The same word is used of the “new man” in Ephesians 2:15 and the “new self” in Ephesians 4:24. Not only are believers really new, but Paul says that “the old has gone, the new has come.” A new believer is completely forgiven. I believe that among the old things that have passed away are all sins, including divorce prior to salvation. If it were otherwise, divorce would be the only sin for which Christ did not atone, and that would be inconceivable.
I hope no one misunderstands me, for divorce is not the ideal. It is a divine concession to human weakness. God hates divorce! We must realize that divorce (and remarriage) according to the Biblical guidelines is not sin—though it is due to sin. We must mourn every divorce!
How foreign to the Biblical mind are phrases like “creative divorce” or “the magic of divorce” or the ad that appeared on the back of a TV Guide: “Order your DIVORCE RING BAND today.… Now is the time to celebrate your new beginning.”
We have discussed the issues primarily with the non-offending party in view. What advice is there for the offending party? Here I can do no better than quote the concluding words of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:
“Have you nothing to say about others?” asks someone. All I would say about them is this, and I say it carefully and advisedly, and almost in fear lest I give even a semblance of a suggestion that I am saying anything that may encourage anyone to sin. But on the basis of the gospel and in the interest of truth I am compelled to say this: Even adultery is not the unforgivable sin. It is a terrible sin, but God forbid that there should be anyone who feels that he or she has sinned himself or herself outside the love of God or outside His kingdom because of adultery. No; if you truly repent and realize the enormity of your sin and cast yourself upon the boundless love and mercy and grace of God, you can be forgiven and I assure you of pardon. But hear the words of our blessed Lord: “Go and sin no more.”
Finally, what do we say to the church, to ourselves?
First, 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.
Next, we must refrain from self-righteous judgmentalism. All of us are adulterers in heart. We must exercise our dealings with those who have fallen, realizing that we are ourselves under Christ’s omniscient dictum: “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28).
Finally, toward those who have fallen to or suffered divorce, we must be forgiving, like our Lord. We must not call unclean that which he has called clean (Acts 10:15). We must endeavor to share the suffering of those ravaged by divorce. And lastly, the church should make provision for the remarriage of those who have Biblically divorced.
About The Preacher: Dr. Kent Hughes
|Dr. Hughes’s thirty-five years of ministry divides evenly into ten years as a youth pastor, five years as a church planter, and twenty years as senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL. He is the author of more than twenty-five books, among which are Disciplines of a Godly Man and Liberating Ministry From the Success Syndrome. He is in the midst of a life-long project of completing the Preaching the Word commentary series of the entire New Testament, and is the editor of the Old Testament for the same series. College Church is noted for its world-wide missions outreach, because half of its total budget goes to world missions. The Hughes are the parents of four children and fourteen grandchildren.
In addition to regular pastoral, administrative and preaching duties at College Church, Pastor Hughes ministers to several outside conferences each year. He is a Staley lecturer, and in addition speaks at spiritual emphasis weeks for many Christian colleges and universities. Pastor and Mrs. Hughes speak regularly at pastors’ conferences.
Pastor Hughes has served on the Board of Americans United for Life (the legal arm of the pro-life movement), the Board of Trustees of World Radio Missionary Fellowship (HCJB), and the board of Operation Mobilization. Presently he is a member of the Board of Crossway Books.
Dr. Hughes is also a Former senior editor of Christianity Today.
Preaching the Word Series, Crossway Books