Christ and Divorce: Matthew 5:31-32

In his commentary on this passage, John Stott admits that he has “a basic reluctance to attempt an exposition of these verses.”  His reasons for this are two: the fact that the topic of divorce is so controversial and also the fact that “it is a subject which touches peoples’ emotions at the deepest level.”  And yet, he faces up to the passages squarely because, as he puts it: “I am convinced that the teaching of Jesus on this and every subject is good – intrinsically good, good for individuals, good for society.”[1]  He evidently is one of a few commentators to do this.  Lloyd-Jones, in his sermon on this passage noted that “for some reason or another many commentators, even though they have set out to write a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, slide over this and do not deal with it.”[2]  I also must admit a basic reluctance to deal with this text and to feel a temptation to “slide over” it.  Indeed, I would not even speak on this text if I did not believe that the Bible is to be faithfully preached and that all of it is not only relevant but true and good.  These are the words of Christ and if we profess to be his disciples we are professing that he is our Lord and that all our lives fall under his dominion.  To turn a deaf ear to his teaching on divorce – not matter how out of step it might be to our modern culture – is to prove ourselves to be Christians in name only.  Evidently our Lord thought the subject of divorce important enough to speak to it, and the Holy Spirit has preserved his words for us today in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

There are two things I want to do with this passage.  First, I want to consider the connection between what Jesus says about divorce and what the Old Testament says about divorce.  This is one passage where some would bring forward as evidence that what Jesus is teaching is fundamentally at odds with the OT doctrine, that he is abrogating the OT ethic in favor of his own.  I want to show that this is not the case.  God is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  The standards of morality have not changed, and the institution of marriage, which predated the Mosaic Law, did not suddenly get a face-lift from Jesus.  No, he is doing what he has done in the previous verses: he is correcting a Pharisaic misinterpretation of the Scriptural teaching on divorce.  I think this is important because if we mistakenly think that Christ is just jettisoning the ethical teaching of the OT in favor of his own, we are not going to read our OT in the same way our Lord and his apostles read it.  For one thing, we are not going to take its commands seriously, and that, I think, would be devastating.

Then I want to look at the positive nature of our Lord’s words here and what both he and the OT have to say about the institution of marriage and divorce.  You cannot separate the two: one’s position on marriage will determine one’s position on divorce, so we must look at them together.  I think one of the reasons the church today has lost its way on the topic of divorce is partly because we have stopped listening to what the Scripture has to say about marriage and adopted our culture’s perspective.  Marriage has become all about me, and what I can get out of it.  We think of this relationship in terms of personal fulfillment and happiness and so on.  But as we shall see, this is not the Biblical perspective.  That does not mean that marriage done God’s way is antithetical to personal happiness.  In fact, the high divorce rates in our country and the bitterness that attends most of them are a testament to the fact that self-fulfillment is not only a very fragile foundation to build a marriage on, but also a brittle basis upon which to build one’s happiness.  If you aim for happiness apart from godliness, you will miss both. 

Let us consider first the relationship of Christ’s teaching to that of the OT.  Our Lord says, “It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” 

First of all, who was our Lord quoting in verse 31?  Now it must be emphatically said that Jesus is not here directly quoting Moses.  Nowhere in the Pentateuch is anyone ordered to put away his wife or give her a certificate of divorce.  In fact, there are very few passages in the Mosaic legislation that even speak about divorce.  One of the few passages is Deuteronomy 24; our Lord does seem to refer to this passage when he interacts again with the Pharisees about marriage in Matthew 19:3-9.  In that place he allows that Moses “because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so” (19:8).  Nevertheless, it is clear that Deut. 24 does allow for the possibility of divorce and that this passage stands at least indirectly behind verse 31.

What is the meaning of verse 31?  Since Deut. 24 stands behind those whom our Lord is quoting in verse 31, let us look at that passage in more detail.  In verses 1-4, Moses writes:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then 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 of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man's wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (ESV)

Notice that there is only one command in this passage.  It is not that a man should divorce his wife if he isn’t pleased with her.  It is that if a divorce has taken place, and if his divorced wife marries another man, and if then she becomes free from that marriage for whatever reason, then her first husband must not marry her again – and that to do so would be an abomination before the Lord.  Nowhere is divorce encouraged in this passage.  Far from encouraging divorce, this passage functions to discourage a man from rushing into divorce proceedings.  For according to the Mosaic legislation, it is final; it cannot be undone.  Far from undermining marriage, this passage insists upon the sanctity of the marriage vow.

However, the Biblical scholars of the day had missed the overall message of Deuteronomy by zeroing in on the word “indecency” (the KJV has “some uncleanness”).   Here was a clear case of missing the Bible with the Bible. In Jesus’ day, there were two schools of thought on divorce, and the difference between them came down to what they thought was meant by “some indecency.”  The stricter school, that of Rabbi Shammai, “taught . . . that the sole ground for divorce was some grave matrimonial offence.”[3]  On the other hand, the school of Rabbi Hillel was much more lenient and taught that pretty much anything was covered under the term “indecency.”  According to Stott, “If she [the wife] proved to be an incompetent cook and burnt her husband’s food, or if he lost interest in her because of her plain looks and because he became enamoured of some other more beautiful woman, these things were ‘unseemly’ and justified him in divorcing her.”[4]

Now it is clear that the Pharisees came down on the side of Rabbi Hillel.  For when they later came to Jesus to ask him about the matter of divorce, they framed their question this way: “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?” (Mt. 19:3).  It seems then, that what lies behind the “it hath been said . . .” of verse 31 is an attempt to interpret Deuteronomy 24:1 in a very lenient fashion and to justify any divorce by a reference to Moses.  All one needs is the proper paperwork to be in the right.

To this our Lord responds that to divorce your spouse except for sexual immorality is itself sexual immorality.  And not only are you sinning, you are causing your spouse to sin, for when they remarry, they will also be committing adultery.  In other words, our Lord is condemning that interpretation of Deut. 24 that views the indecency of verse 1 as anything and everything.  Rather, our Lord interprets it in the terms of sexual immorality. 

An objection to this is that the indecency cannot be sexual immorality, because in the Mosaic Law, adultery was dealt with not by divorce but by execution.  However, the impropriety need not have happened after the marriage; it could be a reference to the spouse finding out about immoral behavior that happened prior to the marriage, as Joseph supposed happened with Mary and planned to divorce her, cf. Mt. 1:18-19.  (Note that Joseph is called “just” in doing this.)  D. A. Carson notes that “the indecency must have been shocking” whatever it was, for “ancient Israel took marriage seriously.  The best assumption is that the indecency was any lewd, immoral behavior, sometimes including, but not restricted to, adultery.”  Thus, there is no real reason to think that Jesus is rejecting Moses; he is simply rejecting an interpretation of OT Scripture that undermined its original intention.

And yet we are in danger of doing this again in our day.  As in Jesus’ day, divorce is so rampant that we are tempted to tone down what the Bible has to say about it.  The danger of reinterpreting Scripture to fit our lifestyle instead of realigning our lifestyle to the Scriptures is still present.  And though it would be very easy to just ignore the whole problem and let Christians be guided by their own lights, for me to do so would be to be fundamentally unfaithful to Christ.  We desperately need to hear what our Lord says about divorce, and to commit ourselves to following him no matter how difficult the path might be.

But to do so, we need to understand what he says about marriage.  To do this, we need to turn to our Lord’s words in Matthew 19.  It is important to underline the fact that when the Pharisees ask him directly about the problem of divorce, he goes back to marriage as it was instituted in the beginning.  In other words, as we’ve been indicating, we go wrong when it comes to divorce precisely because we have already gone wrong when it comes to marriage.  The connection between this passage and our text is also found in the fact that Jesus’ ultimate conclusion is the same.  His words in 19:9 are almost identical to his words in 5:32: “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.” 

One might think, like the disciples did, that this is harsh.  They came up to Jesus after he uttered these words and said, “If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry” (v. 10).  What if you’re in a terrible marriage?  What if you can’t seem to put things right?  Are you saying that it is wrong to get out of a bad marriage?  Well, that’s not what I’m saying.  That’s what Jesus is saying.  Unless the reason for divorcing your spouse is a matter of sexual immorality, then you have no right to do so.

Now it is true that Paul adds abandonment by an unbelieving spouse to the exceptions for divorce (cf. 1 Cor. 7:15).  If you are married to an unbeliever, and they want out, Paul basically says, “Let them go.”  But the important point here is that if they want out, let them go.  Even in this case, it is not the believer who is initiating divorce proceedings.  A believer should never go for divorce, unless their spouse has been or is being unfaithful to them.  And even then it is not necessary.  Divorce is never commanded in Scripture.  Even when it is allowed, it is only because of the hardness of men’s hearts.  That is to say, even in cases when it can be justified, it is still less than ideal. 

If these words feel wrong to you, it might be because you don’t have a proper – that is to say, a Biblical – view of marriage.  Again, we have bought into the lie that marriage is basically for our personal fulfillment and self-discovery.  We have become man-centered in our view of marriage.  But the Biblical view of marriage is profoundly God-centered. 

We need to understand first of first of all, that marriage is not a man-made institution.  It is not something that our prehistoric ancestors came up with to advance some kind of social agenda.  Marriage is something given to us by God himself, it is God’s idea and institution and creation.  You see this in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Matthew 19:4-6.  God even gave the first bride away (Gen. 2:22).  Marriage is sacred, not only because of the promises we make, but fundamentally because in marriage we are entering into a relationship created and sanctified by God himself.

We can see just how serious God takes this institution by the language our Lord employs for its unlawful termination: he calls it adultery.  And let us remind ourselves what our Lord has just told us about adultery: it is so serious that it is more profitable to pluck out an eye or to cut off a hand than to go into hell because of it.  There is no way to get around our Lord’s words here: those who remain unrepentant in sexual immorality are in danger of hell-fire.  It is just that serious.

We also need to understand that God made marriage to be a permanent institution.  “Wherefore they are no more two, but one flesh.  What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (19:6).  Divorce is unnatural because it separates something God has put together.  When a man divorces his wife or when a wife her husband for unbiblical reasons, they are working against God, no matter how much they try to convince themselves and others that their plan to divorce “feels right.”  It may feel right, but it is not right.  It is unholy in fact. 

And then we need to understand that what stands behind this permanent Divine institution is God’s design to glorify himself and to put the gospel on display in the world.  This is essentially Paul’s point in Ephesians 5.  Wives are to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ.  Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loves the church and gave himself for it.  What is behind such commitment?  It is the fact that just as Christ and his church are one, even so a husband and his wife are one (cf. Eph. 5:29-32).  And just as Christ will never give up on his church, no matter how much we fail him, even so husbands and wives should gladly display Christ’s love by their love to one another.

In other words, you need to see your marriage (and all of life!) in light of God’s cosmic purposes.  We get in trouble so often because we don’t try to see beyond our little problems.  More is at stake here than your personal happiness.  The glory of God is at stake in your marriage.  The display of the gospel is at stake in your marriage.  Our life is a vapor – and however significant the problems of today are, they will appear as nothing in light of eternity.  Let eternity put a new perspective upon your marriage (cf. 1 Cor. 7:29-31).

There are of course, many other happy consequences that follow obedience to our Lord’s words here.  If marriage were held in honor (cf. Heb. 13:4) in society, Scripture indicates that we would be a much healthier society.  This is especially true for children: the security that they enjoy from having parents who remain faithful to each other is incalculable (and this doesn’t stop when they leave the home).  But the ultimate reason that should decide the matter for those of us who claim to serve Christ is that our marriages operate under the domain of his sovereignty and for his purposes, and part of our faithfulness to him is to follow his direction for marriage.

Finally, let me end by tying this back to the Beatitudes.  How can a Christian couple seriously claim to be following Christ when they want a divorce?  For to live out the Beatitudes will make the reasons for a divorce go away.  As John Chrysostom put it: “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?”[5]  Let us follow the one who will never put away those who belong to him by imitating his character in our homes.

[1] The Message of the Sermon on the Mount, p. 92.

[2] Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, p. 222.

[3] Stott, p. 93.

[4] Ibid, p. 93.

[5] Qtd. In Stott, p. 98.


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