Pastor David B. Curtis


Jesus on Divorce

Matthew 5:31-32

Delivered 11/03/2002

I'm sure that most every one of you have been touched by divorce. You have either been divorced or know of someone close to you who has. The majority of marriages today end in divorce. It seems that when things get rough, people want out. And they are getting out in increasing numbers. Instead of "for better or for worse", it has become "for better not for worse." Instead of "until we are parted by death", it has become "until I am no longer happy."

What do we say about all of this? What does the church have to say? Well, often the church simply condemns divorce. That's easy enough. The tragedy is many condemn both divorce and those who are divorced - both the sin and the sinner. It's far neater that way. By doing that, we can not only continue to pontificate against divorce from our lofty platform, but we also will not have to get our hands dirty by grappling with real people who have been divorced.

We must be careful when we listen to what the church says. Often, churches are guilty of twisting the Scriptures to accommodate their own particular bias. Generally, they either raise the standard or lower it. On one hand, well-meaning people raise the standard in their desire to stop divorce.

There is a church is Virginia Beach whose pastor says this about divorce:"The Bible allows for divorce only before physical consummation and not after physical consummation (i.e., not after marriage)." He seems to be saying that the Bible only allows for divorce when there has been no marriage. He goes on to say, "Divorce is never an option for Christians....remarriage is only allowable when the marriage union has been broken by death."

So he says there should be no divorce for anybody for any reason, and absolutely no remarriage for anyone at any time, period. That sounds nice and neat, doesn't it? The only problem with it is that while it may be well-intentioned, it is biblically incorrect. On the other hand, there are those well-intentioned people who look at the problem of divorce and say we must not forget that people are involved, and we need to love them, care for them, minister to them, and accept them. The tendency here is to lower the standard to accommodate everybody. While these churches rightly emphasize forgiveness, they end up lowering the standard to the same as that of the world. And that is biblically wrong.

Perhaps we should not be asking what the church says, but rather what the Bible - God's Word says. Does God have a word for the tragedy of divorce? The answer is, "Yes, He does".. And it is a redemptive word for those who have been scarred by divorce; and also a strong word of encouragement for those seeking to build strong Christian marriages. You see, it is God's desire not only to minister to those who have failed in their marriages, but also to give practical instruction to those seeking to divorce-proof their current marriage. God not only diagnoses the illness, He prescribes the cure. We need to hear that word today. And we will as we examine the Scripture. So let's look at God's Word in order to discover the plain, biblical teaching concerning marriage. Let's remember the words of Agustin, the 5th century church father, who said, "When Scripture speaks, God speaks."

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.

In this context, Jesus moves into the subject of divorce and remarriage. It almost seems like a total change of subject, but it is not. Because of the lust of the heart, there is often a breakdown of the marriage relationship. You may find someone other than your marriage partner whom you like better. So the context is still adultery. The subject now is not only adultery in the heart, but adultery in the act affecting the marriage relationship.

There were two schools of thought in Jesus' day concerning divorce, and they were propagated by two rabbis: Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. Rabbi Shammai had taught that divorce was only permissible on the grounds of some sexual impropriety. His was the stricter view. Rabbi Hillel, on the other hand, had a more liberal view and taught that a man could divorce His wife for any reason. If she burned his breakfast, put too much salt on his food, showed disrespect to him, spoke disrespectfully of her husband's parents in his presence, spoke to a man on the street, or even let her hair down in public, he could divorce her. The view of Rabbi Hillel was the view that was popular in Jesus' day. The religious leaders of the day, who wanted Him to become unpopular with the people, tried to trap Him. Perhaps they had heard the Sermon on the Mount, and they knew He would never side with the more liberal but highly popular view. The account is found in Matthew 19:1-10.

But the testing of the religious leaders was flawed by misinterpretation. This entire controversy was based on a passage of Scripture in Deuteronomy 24. The religious leaders construed this as a commandment:

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

What is referred to here is what they felt was a commandment to divorce a wife. This passage was misunderstood because it was mistranslated for years. Even in our King James Bible, the sense of that mistranslation is perpetuated. Listen to Deuteronomy 24:1 from the King James Version:

Deuteronomy 24:1 (KJV) 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.

The way this reads is that it is a command to divorce a wife when some uncleanness is found in her. Notice it says "then let him write her a bill of divorcement."

The New American Standard Version translates this passage accurately. It reads:

Deuteronomy 24:1 (NASB) "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 indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house,

What is being recounted here is not a command to divorce, but the objective account of one who does divorce based on some "uncleanness" or "indecency."

Now the real issue was what constituted uncleanness. Shammai said that it was sexual impropriety. Hillel said it was for any reason, such as the ones I have already mentioned. Another rabbi who was of Hillel's school, Rabbi Akiba, took it even farther to its logical conclusion by saying that the "indecency" in her meant that a man could divorce his wife when he found another woman who was more beautiful. Such was the climate in Jesus' day. It is not very much different from the climate in our day.

So we see here the religious leaders testing Jesus, hoping that He would discredit Himself with the people by adopting an unpopular view concerning divorce. I'm sure all ears were opened as the crowd waited to hear His response.

Jesus did respond. He remembered the detailed instruction of Moses and reminded the religious leaders of it. They confronted Him with what Moses had said. They referred Him to Deuteronomy 24. Then Jesus did what He was so adept at doing. He cut right to the heart of the issue:

Matthew 19:8 (NKJV) 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.

Rather than entering into a debate over what the "indecency" was, He told the religious leaders why Moses wrote the commandment concerning divorce. Jesus said that it was for the hardness of heart of the people. That was the whole reason divorce was permitted at all. People's hearts had become hard, and they were divorcing their wives for any reason. You must remember that the wife never had the authority to divorce her husband. So Moses wrote the law concerning the writing of a bill of divorcement for the protection of the woman. Without such a bill, she had no rights at all. It was because of the mercy of God and the hardness of the human heart that this instruction was given. But the rabbis had taken this as some kind of right to divorce a wife for any reason.

Jesus further revealed the divine intention for marriage by digging deeper and giving these religious leaders a lesson from the very beginning of their Bible:

Matthew 19:4-6 (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,' 5 "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'? 6 "So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."

Jesus points to God's original intention back in creation. You recall there that God made one man and one woman. God didn't create two men; it wasn't Adam and Steve. He didn't create two women; it wasn't Alice and Eve. Nor did God create any extras in case Adam and Eve didn't work out. It was just Adam and Eve - one man and one woman. That was God's original intent. And that is still His desire for marriage. Make no mistakes about it - God's intent is one man married to one woman until they are parted by death.

The religious leaders came to Jesus and tested Him by asking, "What do you think about divorce?" He responded to them by saying, "What do you think about marriage?" And then He revealed to them what God thinks about marriage. God sees marriage as two people becoming one, committed to one another, in a covenant relationship which lasts a lifetime.

But we still have the question: What about divorce? Does the Scripture have anything to say about that? Divorce is real. Divorce happens. Are there any guidelines? Is there any sure word from God? Is the original intention of God all there is in the Bible by which we judge marriage, divorce and remarriage? How do we deal with people who get divorced? Are there any biblical grounds for divorce? All these are questions which need answers. And while Jesus expresses the divine intention for marriage, He does not stop there. He goes on to deal with the issue of divorce.

God made his view of divorce clear to the Israelites in:

Malachi 2:14 (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.

If you are married, you are bound before God in that relationship. The discussion continues in the next two verses:

Malachi 2:15-16 (NKJV) 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 Old Testament starts out in Genesis with God establishing marriage. It closes out in the Book of Malachi with God saying He hates divorce. Even though divorce is being practiced, God's attitude toward it has not changed. From fifteen hundred years before the time of Christ when Moses wrote the Book of Genesis down to Malachi's time, God has not changed His position. It is the same in spite of the fact that divorce and remarriage have become a common practice.

We need to be clear in the church of Jesus Christ about these issues. There is a tendency to over-react based on our conservative theology and our high view of marriage. But we must be careful to say what the Scriptures say, not to interpret them based on religious tradition or even the rabbis of our day. I challenge you to hold the belief you hold based on a thorough examination of Scripture, not based on what religious tradition says or on what Pastor So-and-so says. I believe in certain positions because of my understanding of the Scriptures, not because I have subscribed to some creed or joined some conservative camp. I know too many preachers who line up behind certain teachers or subscribe to certain schools of thought, because it's convenient and easy to do. It's far easier to let someone do your thinking for you than to struggle with the Scriptures as you study them and pray over them to seek God's direction as you attempt to apply them to your life.

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.

Here Jesus gives a ground for divorce. This ground is also found in Matthew 19:9:

Matthew 19:9 (NKJV) "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."

In Matthew 5:32, Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 24

Deuteronomy 24:1 (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,

The question that Jesus is addressing in Matthew 5:31,32 comes from the statement in Deuteronomy 24:1, "because he has found some uncleanness in her." What does the word "uncleanness" mean?

There are four words in the Hebrew which are translated "uncleanness" in the Old Testament. The first two refer to dirtiness or contamination, natural or ceremonial. Examples of these are touching a dead body or a person with leprosy. The third word was used to illustrate spiritual uncleanness and is often used to speak about sin. The word "uncleanness," in Deuteronomy 24:1, is taken from the Hebrew word, "ervah". This word is translated as "uncleanness" only once in the Old Testament, which is in Deuteronomy 24:1. It is translated: "shame" one time in Isaiah 20:4, and it is translated: "unclean" one time in Deuteronomy 23:14. This same Hebrew word, "ervah", is found fifty one other times in the Old Testament. All other fifty one times it is translated "nakedness", and it comes from the root word of nudity.

When Deuteronomy 24:1 says, "because he has found some uncleanness in her,"it means she has disgracefully lowered herself exposing her nakedness to open shame, or uncleanness sexually. This is what Jesus calls "fornication" in our text.

What exactly is "fornication?" Fornication and adultery are synonymous terms in the scriptures, and they are often interchangeable. In the 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. Porneia certainly includes everything meant by the word "uncleanness" as used in Deuteronomy 24:1.

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, there is an exception to the no divorce rule, and that is sexual immorality. When a divorce is because of immorality, the innocent party is free to remarry.

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.

So we see there are biblical exceptions to divorce. Jesus gives us one here: sexual immorality. Sexual immorality would break the marital bond and release the partner. But notice here that Jesus never commanded divorce for sexual immorality, but only permitted it. What Jesus is saying is that if a man divorces his wife for anything less than sexual immorality, he then causes her to commit adultery and commits adultery himself.

It is very important to understand this. If a man puts his wife away for any other cause, he causes her to commit adultery. In other words, that marriage bond has never been broken in the eyes of the Lord, because there has not been uncleanness. Therefore, that woman is still married in the eyes of the Lord, the bond has never been broken. That is what the Lord Jesus is teaching here.

Is divorce permitted in the Scripture for anything other than fornication? Yes, it is! In 1 Corinthians 7 we find another important passage dealing with divorce and remarriage. Let's look at 1 Corinthians 7. Remember that Paul is writing to Christians.

He addresses two Christians married to one another in:

1 Corinthians 7:10-11 (NKJV) Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. 11 But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.

Here we have two Christians married to one another. Paul simply says, "Stay together." There is no reason to leave. If there is no sexual immorality, stay together. It is interesting that he does make a provision for a separation. And in fact, the Bible does not anywhere teach that the wife has an obligation to stay in a home with an abusive man who threatens her physical welfare or the welfare of her children. But if she leaves under those circumstances, she is either to be reconciled unto her husband, or to remain unmarried. The only biblical reason for two Christians divorcing is sexual immorality.

Paul also addresses a mixed marriage - a Christian who is married to an unbeliever. These mixed marriages could happen in a couple of ways. Two unbelievers could be married, and then later one becomes a Christian. That, I believe is the most common way a mixed marriage happens. The second way is that a believer could marry an unbeliever in direct contradiction to the Scriptures. The Bible teaches us that we are not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. That is the command of God. It is not something put there to make us miserable. In fact, it is something put there for our own good. God is trying to save us the misery of being locked into a marriage with someone who is fundamentally different from us, whose values are different, whose outlook on life is different, whose goals are different. Let me encourage you and plead with you - do not be foolish enough to marry an unbeliever. While it is possible for God to do something to save that person, there is no guarantee that it will happen. You may be condemned to a life of misery.

Here Paul addresses mixed marriages and says:

1 Corinthians 7:12-15 (NKJV) But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. 13 And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace.

The teaching here is quite simple: Paul is well familiar with the teaching of Jesus and he, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, expands the exception from sexual immorality to include desertion by an unbelieving partner. He says, "If you are a believer married to an unbeliever, stay with them. God may save them." He holds out hope for that to happen. In verse 16 he says, "For how do you know, oh wife, whether you will save your husband; or how do you know, oh husband, whether you will save your wife?" In other words, he's saying, "God may do something. Stay with them as long as they desire to stay with you." But then verse 15 gives us the only other biblical grounds for divorce. When an unbelieving partner leaves a believer, the believer is to let that partner leave. The Scriptures tell us that "the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases." Bondage to what? Obviously, bondage to the law of marriage. Let's look at this word bondage in:

Romans 7:2 (NKJV) For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband.

The word for bound in this verse is from a root form of the Greek word for bondage in 1 Corinthians 7:15. Paul speaks of being released from the bondage of marriage by the desertion of an unbelieving partner. What the Scripture is teaching here is that Christians should stay with non-Christians as long as the non-Christian is willing. But if the non-Christian leaves the Christian and divorces him or her, then the Christian is released from that marriage biblically, and is free to remarry.

To sum up, there are only three things that biblically release a marriage partner from a marriage: (1) the death of one marriage partner; (2) sexual unfaithfulness by a marriage partner; and (3) the desertion and divorce by an unbelieving marriage partner. That is the plain teaching of Scripture.

A word of caution is in order lest you get yourself into a trap. Some people rationalize that since they are in a marriage they do not like, the best thing to do would be to go ahead and commit adultery, then they can have their new relationship with a new marriage. They conclude that God will forgive them, and they can go on with life. After all, that would surely be better than being stuck in this awful present relationship for the rest of their lives. Would it? Believer, understand this, there are serious consequences to sin.

When thinking of such circumstances, we only need to remember David being confronted by Nathan after his sin with Bathsheba. Nathan told David after his repentance that God had put away his sin from him and forgiven him. Then Nathan proceeded to outline the consequences that David would experience as a result of his sin. David was told that the baby would die and the sword would never depart from his house. One of David's daughters was later raped by one of his sons. That son was ultimately murdered for revenge. Then another son was eventually executed as he rebelled against David and tried to kill his own father. These were consequences God said David would suffer as a result of his sin. Therefore, we need to be very careful about sinning intentionally. Don't think you can get away with it just because God will forgive you. He will forgive you, but He will not necessarily remove the consequences of your sin.

But while those are the biblical grounds for a divorce, what about those who have divorced outside those grounds? To those, we have to say that what they have done is to sin against God and against their partner. If there is the possibility, they need to go and be reconciled to the one they divorced. If one of them has remarried, then they must simply cast themselves on the mercy of God in repentance and ask for forgiveness. They must call it what it is - sin. There was no reason for it, and there is no excuse. But at the same time, let me hasten to add that the sin of divorce is no different than any other sin. It is not the "unpardonable" sin. And to make it otherwise is to sin an even greater sin, the sin of self-righteous spiritual pride. The sinner who casts himself upon Jesus in sincere repentance will find forgiveness. And we must forgive those whom God forgives. It is sad, but in some churches, you could be forgiven of murder, but not divorce. I want you to know that God can heal and restore divorced persons and can use them in His Kingdom, not as second-class citizens, but in the same way he uses all saved sinners.

Of course, the best path is to avoid divorce. Let me share a biblical principle to help us divorce-proof our marriages. We've already referred to the fact that God's original intent for marriage was two people joined in a one-flesh union, committed to one another in a covenant relationship for life. If we will heed the principle of commitment, our marriages will be safe.

Commitment means first, "I am committed to God: to be obedient to Him, to follow His word, to put Him first in my life". If a man and a woman are committed to God, they have a foundation for a marriage that will be divorce-proof.

But commitment also means that I am committed to my marriage partner. Because I am committed to God, I can then be committed to that person. Because I am committed to God's word, divorce is not an option. As a matter of fact, I encourage you to put that word out of your vocabulary - never, never use it when you are mad and upset, and things are not going well. For the believer, it should not be an option - put it out of your vocabulary. Christians who are committed to God first and committed to one another can survive almost any storm.

We can divorce-proof our marriages if we will live according to God's original purpose. As we put Jesus first, and as we both together move closer to Him, we will be pulled closer together. And God will give us a wonderful marriage that is founded upon the rock which cannot be moved.

Jesus is saying in Matthew 5 that the issue has to be dealt with in the heart, because that is the basis of the whole issue. God looks at the heart. If you have an adulterer's heart, God is aware of that. He knows the thoughts of your heart. You must deal with those thoughts of adultery in your heart, because those thoughts will eventually lead you to begin looking for someone else. That involves a lack of commitment to your partner and will eventually lead to the breakdown of the marriage relationship. Keep your heart pure.

Media #258a

Continue the Series

Berean Bible Church provides this material free of charge for the edification of the Body of Christ. You can help further this work by your prayer and by contributing online or by mailing to:

Berean Bible Church
1000 Chattanooga Street
Chesapeake, VA 23322