Pastor David B. Curtis


The Bible and Divorce

Matthew 5:31-32

Delivered 10/25/1998

Is Divorce the unpardonable sin?

Matthew 12:31-32 (NKJV) "Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. 32 "Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.

The way many Christians treat divorced people you would think that divorce is the unpardonable sin. It is not! On the other extreme there are those who don't think that divorce is a sin at all.

This morning I want us to look at what the Bible teaches on the subject of divorce and re-marriage. Our society's view of divorce changes, but God's doesn't and the Bible gives us God's view on divorce. Divorce is an issue that effects us all. All of us are touched by it either in our own family or in our circle of friends. Between 1970 and 1996, the number of divorced persons has more than quadrupled, from 4.3 million to 18.3 million, while the number of never-married adults has more than doubled, from 21.4 million to 44.9 million, according to a recently released report by the Commerce Department's Census Bureau. Divorce has reached epidemic proportions in our society.

There seems to be a lot of confusion among believers over what the Bible teaches about divorce. It's obvious that many churches have lowered the standard, and any believer who wants to get a divorce is often encouraged to do so. I know a woman who wanting a divorce asked several pastors if divorce was okay. They told her it was fine. Unscriptural divorce is one of the great evils of our time. Many churches are as lax in their divorce laws as were the ancient Pharisees who allowed divorce for "every cause."

The New Testament law of divorce is strict. Jesus threw out all causes but the one cause of fornication. Did Jesus, restricting divorce to one cause, bind together men and women who are unhappily married? Yes! Why does He require that they continue their lifelong miserable existence, and leave them, as the poet John Milton said, "Two carcasses unnaturally chained together?" Why? Because they covenanted before God to love each other until death, not until unhappiness.

While most have lowered God's standard, some have raised it. Some people look at the divorce rate and say, "We have to stop divorce." So, in order to stop divorce they come up with a doctrine that says, "No divorce for anybody, for any reason, and absolutely no re-marriage for anyone, anytime, who has been divorced." They look at the problem in our society and say, "In order to stop the problem, let's take the Bible's standard and raise it." Now, that may sound good and that would sure make it simple but there is just one problem with it, it's not biblical. And therefore just as wrong as the lax view because it is not what God states as the standard either.

So, on the one hand we have people lowering the standard and on the other hand we have people raising the standard. And what we must understand is what is God's standard, what do the Scriptures teach. Let's remember the words of Agustin, the 5th century church father, who said, "When Scripture speaks, God speaks." So, let's search the Scripture and learn the mind of God on divorce.

The first thing that I want you to understand is that God hates divorce.

Malachi 2:14-16 (NKJV) Yet you say, "For what reason?" Because the LORD has been witness Between you and the wife of your youth, With whom you have dealt treacherously; Yet she is your companion And your wife by covenant. 15 But did He not make them one, Having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, And let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. 16 "For the LORD God of Israel says That He hates divorce, For it covers one's garment with violence," Says the LORD of hosts. "Therefore take heed to your spirit, That you do not deal treacherously."

The Hebrew word for "hate" used here is ane', (saw-nay') and has the idea of "detest." God detests divorce. Has God changed His mind on this over the years?

Malachi 3:6 (NKJV) "For I am the LORD, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.

Does God view divorce differently in the New Testament? No! Let's look at what Jesus said in Matthew 19:

Matthew 19:3 (NKJV) The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?"

The Pharisees wanted to bring Jesus a test He couldn't pass, they wanted to discredit and destroy Him. Divorce was a flaming issue throughout Palestine. This issue is known in Jewish history as the "Hillel-Shammai" dispute. Hillel and Shammai were two famous Rabbis who were heads of rabbinical schools in Jerusalem. They lived about a generation before Christ.

Hillel taught that a Jew could divorce his wife for any cause whatsoever. Shammai held that divorce was lawful only for the cause of fornication.

Rabbi Shammai didn't have a great following because his view wasn't popular with the people. Rabbi Hillel's view was very popular. He taught that you could divorce your wife for burning the dinner, for putting too much salt on the food, for taking her hair down, for speaking to men, or for saying something unkind about her mother-in-law. You could even divorce her if you found someone prettier. In other words, you could divorce your wife for any reason at all. This was the popular view and the view that the Pharisees taught.

The Pharisees were hoping to have Jesus publicly pronounce the reigning monarch of the area as a fornicating adulterer, and thus put his life in jeopardy.

Matthew 19:4 (NKJV) And He answered and said to them, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,'

Jesus' answer was beyond their customs, beyond their Rabbis, and beyond their traditions all the way back to what God said in the very beginning in:

Genesis 1:27 (NKJV) So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
Genesis 2:24 (NKJV) Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

When Jesus said, "Have you not read" He was pointing out their utter ignorance-- "You have read the law haven't you?" Jesus quotes from Genesis and gives four reasons why it is not lawful to divorce for any cause.

1. God created One man for one woman (Matthew 19:4).

God created Adam and Eve. That's it! He didn't create any spares, no Ethel and no Earnest, (just in case it doesn't work, try somebody else). There was nobody else, no spares, options or alternatives.

The Divine intention in the very beginning was one man for one woman for a lifetime. He didn't make provision for polygamy, divorce or homosexuality by creating spares.

For Adam and Eve divorce was not an option. When God created one man for one woman, He set that standard in motion for all of human history. Just because spares came along as time went on, it didn't change God's intention.

2. Marriage is a strong bond:

Matthew 19:5 (NKJV) "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'?

The word "joined" means: "To have a bond that cannot be broken, being glued or stuck."

So God doesn't allow divorce because He created one man for one woman, because of the strong bond of an indissoluble union with no option.

3. Marriage make the two one flesh.

Matthew 19:6 (NKJV) "So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."

You can't divide one. In marriage two people become one flesh.

4. Marriage is a work of God.

Matthew 19:6 (NKJV) "So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."

The word "separate" is the Greek word chorizo, which means: "to divorce." What God puts together, don't divorce. Marriage is a God ordained institution.

Marriage is one man for one woman, it is a strong bond, it is two becoming one flesh, and God is the one who made marriage. So, if we divorce, we are destroying what God made and placing ourselves in a very serious position. The Word of God is very clear on this.

Exodus 20:14 (NKJV) "You shall not commit adultery.

This is saying, "Never violate marriage." The consequence for adultery in the Old Testament was death:

Leviticus 20:10 (NKJV) 'The man who commits adultery with another man's wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.

We see here that adultery could end a marriage. Why adultery? Because according to God's law it resulted in death and there is little question that death ended a marriage.

God says, "One man for one woman, strong bond, one flesh, work of God, no divorce." And if you commit adultery, you loose your life. There really was no provision for divorce. In the case of adultery, however, execution would free the innocent party to remarry.

Exodus 20:17 (NKJV) "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor's."

This is saying, "Don't even think about committing adultery."

Matthew 19:7-9 (NKJV) They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" 8 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.

In verses 7 and 8, Jesus says the divorce bill was a provision given because of their sinfulness, "but from the beginning it was not so." Then in verse 9, He gives the biblical standard;

9 "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."

Divorce was not permitted "except" in the case of fornication. This is the one and only ground for two believers getting divorced. And I believe that where there are grounds for divorce, there must also be grounds for re-marriage.

Matthew 19:10 (NKJV) His disciples said to Him, "If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry."

Many of the rabbinic sayings were no doubt being thought of by the disciples. The Rabbis had many sayings about unhappy marriages. "Among those who will never behold the face of Gehinnom is he who has had a bad wife." Such a man is saved from hell because he has expiated his sins on earth! "Among those whose life is not life is the man who is ruled by his wife." "A bad wife is like leprosy to her husband. What is the remedy? Let him divorce her and be cured of his leprosy." it was even laid down: "If a man has a bad wife, it is a religious duty to divorce her." (These sayings are from the Talmud.)

To men who had been brought up listening to sayings like these, the uncompromising demand of Jesus was an almost frightening thing. Their reaction was that, if marriage is so final and binding a relationship and if divorce is forbidden, it is better not to marry at all, for there is no escape route-- as they understood it-- from an evil situation.

The teaching of the Bible is far different from the teaching of the talmud. The Bible holds marriage in high regard.

Proverbs 18:22 (NKJV) He who finds a wife finds a good thing, And obtains favor from the LORD.

Let's go to Matthew 5 and examine the one exception to the Bible's no divorce rule.

Matthew 5:31-32 (NKJV) "Furthermore it has been said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 "But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

Jesus here is narrowing the standard to one exception-- fornication. In verse 31, Jesus refers to Israel's official divorce bill used by the Jews for about 14 centuries.

To understand this divorce question in the New Testament, we must know the history of divorce in the Old Testament. A rule of biblical interpretation is the "rule of usage." The whole Bible may be regarded as written for the "Jew first" and its words and idioms ought to be rendered according to Hebrew usage.

All a Jew had to do to divorce his wife was to give her the divorce bill in the presence of two witnesses. The marriage was then legally dissolved and both parties were free to remarry.

Deuteronomy 24:1-2 (NKJV) "When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, 2 "when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man's wife,

What is the uncleanness? Some argue that it was immorality, but this can't be true because the unfaithful Jewess was stoned to death.

Leviticus 20:10 (NKJV) 'The man who commits adultery with another man's wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.

Jesus wouldn't have said that divorce was for hardness of heart (Matt. 19:8) if the woman had been immoral. This is proved by the fact that Jesus allowed divorce for fornication.

I want you to see here that at the origin of divorce, the evidence is clear and strong that biblical divorce signified the absolute dissolution of marriage with the right to remarriage.

Divorce was widespread throughout Palestine when Christ uttered the words of Matthew 5:32. People were divorcing for every cause.

John 4:16-18 (NKJV) Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come here." 17 The woman answered and said, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You have well said, 'I have no husband,' 18 "for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly."

This woman was not an exceptional case. Jesus seems to have given recognition to the legality of the fact that the woman had been married to five husbands, but the man she was living with was "not her husband." This is a clear distinction of marital status.

In Matthew 5:32, our Lord shows that the man who divorces his wife for any cause except fornication causes her to commit adultery in re-marriage. The Lord assumed that the woman would remarry. The reason she commits adultery is that she becomes involved in sexual sin with another man while still the wife of the man who divorced her. The divorce did not dissolve the marriage. She was still his wife and he was still her husband. The woman did not have the right to re-marriage, neither did her husband. Both sin if they remarry or enter into sexual relations with another.

In this case, an undissolved marriage is clearly in view. The divorce leaves the couple still married. The question of dissolution is at the heart of the matter. If the husband put away his wife for fornication, the case is different. The marriage is dissolved and the man is not involved in the sin that the woman commits.

Biblical divorce dissolves a marriage.

Under Mosaic law, marriage was held so sacred that both the betrothed bride and adulterous wife were put to death for unfaithfulness (Deut. 22:23-24).

Sometime after Moses, merciful Jews abolished the death penalty for adultery and substituted the divorce bill. Jesus didn't abolish the divorce bill, He corrected the abuse of it. It wasn't to be used for every cause, but only for fornication. Fornication is the one exception to Jesus' no divorce policy.

Matthew 5:32 (NKJV) "But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

The word "divorces" is the Greek word apoluo, which means: "To set free, to loose, liberate, radically dissolved, cut loose, as a ship at its launching; discharge, as a soldier from the army; cut apart, to cause all obligation and responsibility to cease."

In a biblically authorized divorce (one involving fornication) the wedding chain is broken and the nuptial captive is released, and free to remarry.

The word "except" has far reaching importance attached to it. The question of remarriage hangs on it. Does it allow divorce but not remarriage? Except means: "to take out, outside of, to exclude, to leave out, apart from." When a person hears the word "except," he immediately thinks of "not including." He assumes that whatever is excepted is left out. For example: every human being ever born will die and spend eternity in hell "except" those who trust Jesus Christ.

So, when a person divorces for fornication, they are free to remarry.

What exactly is "fornication?" Fornication and adultery are synonymous terms in the scriptures and they are often interchangeable. In Hebrew and Greek, fornication includes; incest, sodomy, harlotry, perversion and all sexual sin both before and after marriage. The Greek word for "fornication" is porneia.

1 Corinthians 10:8 (NKJV) Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell;

The words, "sexual immorality" here are porneuo. We see here that fornication is not just used for sex outside marriage. Certainly not all 23,000 were unmarried. The word encompasses both sex outside marriages and sex that would be constituted as adultery.

So, Jesus taught that there is one ground for divorce which included the right to remarry-- fornication.

Bill Gothard, who does the Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, tries to raise the biblical standard by saying that "fornication" means an incestuous or homosexual marriage. So, he says that only someone in one of those marriages can be divorced. He limits the meaning of the Greek word porneia to fit his view of no divorce.

The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way:

24:5 Adultery or fornication committed after a contract, being detected before marriage, giveth just occasion to the innocent party to dissolve that contract (Matt 1:18-20). In the case of adultery after marriage, it is lawful for the innocent party to sue out a divorce (Matt 5:31, 32): and, after the divorce, to marry another, as if the offending party were dead (Matt 19:9; Rom 7:2, 3).

Some may ask, "Is the exception clause valid? It's only in Matthew-- Luke and Mark give no exception." The synoptic Gospels add and delete different details. There is absolutely no textual ground for doubting the words in Matthew.

Another question that might be asked is, "Well, from the beginning God did not allow for divorce, why would Christ change that?" Remember from the beginning men killed adulterous wives, no need to divorce them when they killed them. Fornication was an exception to all that Jesus taught about marriage and divorce.

To those who have been divorced: The question might be, "I was a believer and so was my spouse and we were divorced without biblical grounds, what is my status?" You're a sinner! Confess your sin before God and return to fellowship, remembering you reap what you sow.

"Is my service for God limited if I have had an unbiblical divorce?" Only in the capacity of elder or deacon.

To the married and miserable: "Am I stuck in a life of misery?" No. But you are stuck with your spouse. If you live a life of dependant obedience to God and love your spouse , you can live a blessed life, no matter how your spouse responds. You're not responsible to change your spouse. You are responsible to change yourself. If your marriage is miserable, blame yourself, not your spouse. Then confess your sin and begin to trust God to give you the strength to live a life of obedience to Him.

Let's hold to the biblical standard without raising it or lowering it. God hates divorce, so may we, His people, strive to live godly lives that promote healthy marriages.

Media #76

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