The Sermon on the Mount: Divorce

Reading Assignment:

Matthew 5:31-32 Deuteronomy 24:1-4
Jeremiah 3:8

Did you understand what you read?

  1. What is this quotation based upon?
  2. Does God permit divorce in all cases?
  3. Who should determine when a marriage may end, man or God? Why?
  4. What is the only acceptable reason for divorce?
  5. Is the act of divorce itself sinful?
  6. Can a person become a sinner by marriage? How?

The Sermon on the Mount: Divorce

You Have Heard It Said

The quote given by Jesus is another which cannot be found in the Old Testament. It mentions a certificate, or bill, of divorcement. Such a certificate is only mentioned twice in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and Jeremiah 3:8). Neither passage is worded even remotely close to what this quote is stating.

The quotation claims that a person who wants out of a marriage must give his spouse a certificate stating the marriage has ended. God stated He did this figuratively with Israel because of Israel’s spiritual adultery in following after other gods in Jeremiah 3:8. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 isn’t directly about divorce. It mentions that if a divorce occurs, certain rules apply, but it only states that the divorce is because of some uncleanness. The exact nature of that uncleanness is not mentioned. The quotation Jesus gives does not hint that any reason for the divorce is necessary. Like the previous quotes, it only focuses on the physical aspects of divorce. If you are going to divorce, make sure you give a certificate of divorce.

But I Say to You

Jesus states that divorce has serious ramifications. A man who divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery. Adultery is unlawful sexual relations with someone who is not your spouse. By laying the charge of possible adultery, Jesus is implying that the divorced spouse is still being held to the marriage covenant (Malachi 2:14). In other words, just because one or both parties in a marriage want to be released from their vows, their desire doesn’t make it so. Nor does a piece of paper created by men make it so. Marriage was defined by God (Genesis 2:24) and not man. The vows are taken before God (Matthew 19:6; Ecclesiastes 5:1-5). Therefore, only God can determine the conditions under which a marriage covenant may be set aside.

The divorce itself does not cause the adultery, but it sets up a situation where adultery is highly likely to occur. A driving force for people to marry is their sexual desire (I Corinthians 7:9). A person who has married has shown an inclination toward a sexual relationship. Thus the logical conclusion is that, regardless of the divorce, the person will sooner or later seek companionship and a sexual relationship.

What Jesus is stating is that the person who divorces his spouse is not innocent of sin (Malachi 2:14-16). A person who influences another person to sin is just as guilty as the person who actually commits the sin (Romans 1:32; Psalms 50:18; I Timothy 5:22). Nor is the person who marries a divorced person innocent of sin. Because God continues to hold the divorced person to the terms of the covenant she has made, the person marrying a divorced person is committing adultery (Romans 7:2-3; Leviticus 20:10). He cannot claim he wasn’t a party to the original covenant and so isn’t bound by its terms.

Jesus presents one exception to the general rule that a man divorcing his wife causes her to commit adultery and that is if the wife was already involved in sexual immorality. In Greek, the phrase parektos logou porneias is not referring to a sin of fornication in the distant past, but of a person currently possessing, or involved in, fornication. The broader word, fornication, is being used instead of the more specific word, adultery, to indicate that all sexual acts are included and not just intercourse with a person of the opposite sex, such as incest, homosexuality, oral sex, and the like. Thus, Jesus is making clear that the “some uncleanness” in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 refers to sexual uncleanness and not anything that can be broadly deemed as being unclean.

When a man divorces his wife because she is involved in fornication you cannot claim that he is making his wife commit adultery because she is already an adulteress. The divorce is not contributing to the sin and thus the man divorcing his wife because of fornication is not guilty of encouraging sin in this case.

Interestingly, the exception clause is only given for whether a man is held accountable for his wife’s future adultery. It is not given to the man who marries a divorced woman. He is guilty of adultery whether she was divorced due to fornication on her part or not.

Old Testament Teachings on Divorce

Rules regarding handling situations caused by divorce appear several times in the Old Testament. A priest was not allowed to marry a divorced, widowed woman, or even a woman who has had prior sexual relations with a man (Leviticus 21:7, 14; Ezekiel 44:22). However, this rule did not extend to all relationships. If a priest’s daughter was divorced or widowed, he could have her back in his home to be supported by him (Leviticus 22:13).

Where a married woman’s promises could be overruled by her husband because he is financially responsible for his wife (Numbers 30:6-7), a widowed or divorced woman doesn’t have someone financially responsible for her. Any promises she makes is binding (Numbers 30:9). Thus we learn that divorce severs the financial ties created by the marriage covenant.

A man who marries a woman but then falsely claims that the woman he married was not a virgin, would be fined 100 shekels (twice the normal dowry), payable to the father of the woman, and he lost all rights to ever divorce his wife (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

A man who has sex with an unmarried woman could be forced to marry the woman at the choosing of the woman’s father. He would have to pay the normal dowry of 50 shekels and he lost all rights to ever divorce his wife (Deuteronomy 22:28-30; Exodus 22:16-17). Even if the father of the woman refuses to allow the marriage, he still had to pay the dowry.

Deuteronomy 24:1-4 concerned whether a divorced woman could remarry her former husband. The law mentions that if a marriage ends in divorce and one spouse remarries and then the second marriage ends, either by divorce or death, then the spouse is not allowed to return to the previous spouse. If you understand the serious nature of divorce, then the law makes good sense. If a man is repulsed by his wife’s sexual immorality to the point of divorcing her, then obviously nothing has changed if she married someone else and then became available again.

The Jews by Jesus’ day had separated the two phrases, “she finds no favor in his eyes” and “he has found some uncleanness in her” to make them into an either-or condition; thus, allowing divorce for any reason. Jesus made it clear that the only allowance for divorce was sexual uncleanness (fornication).

This law also did not deal with whether the second marriage was proper or not. It is simply dealing with the fact that it happens, not whether it was right. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:31-32 makes it clear that this law could not be used as permission to remarry if you were divorced.

In Isaiah 50:1 God uses the analogy of divorce and debt to illustrate his relationship with Israel. In essence, Israel was presenting itself as the innocent party, suffering because of the actions of God. God said, Let’s examine the bill of divorcement and we will see that it was Israel who was unfaithful and not God. It was Israel’s debt that caused them their hardship. In this passage, the actual nature of the sin is not discussed.

In Jeremiah 3:1, the analogy of divorce is again used to deal with one of Israel’s excuses for not returning to God: “We’ve been so wicked that He’ll never take us back.” God reaffirms the truth of the law, and the depth of their sin, but He also affirms that despite this, He would have them back if they would return.

Jeremiah 3:6-8 continues the theme. God did not “divorce” Israel until after her repeated unrepentant adulteries with other gods. So God eventually “put her away,” that is he sent Israel into captivity at the hands of the Assyrians. Though it is an illustration, it does clarify that “some uncleanness” in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was sexual uncleanness because this is how God used it here. We also see the reluctance to divorce. The divorce did not come about because of one incidence or even several of which the erring spouse had repented. The erring spouse had continuously made a mockery of the marriage covenant and remained unrepentant of her sins.

Finally, Malachi 2:16 states that God hates divorce because it dirties the one divorcing. God saw it as an act of treachery against the marriage covenant that God established (Malachi 2:14-15). Jesus’ explanation makes this clear. Divorce, in general, causes the one being divorced to eventually commit adultery. The exception clause was not dealt with in Malachi. Only the general principle was presented, but this doesn’t mean the exception didn’t exist. It had to be learned from other passages, such as Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

New Testament Teachings on Divorce

The most detailed teaching concerning divorce appears in Matthew 19:1-12. However, we will be covering this in a later lesson.

As Jesus taught, the apostles emphasized the seriousness of marriage. Paul used the marriage covenant to illustrate the general point that covenants are binding for the life of both parties (Romans 7:2-3). Until the husband or wife dies, the other partner in the marriage cannot marry again without committing adultery. Therefore, again we see that it is God who defines the terms of the marriage covenant and not man. Paul also points out that divorce ought not to happen (I Corinthians 7:10) and he states that this is based on Jesus’ teaching.

If a divorce does take place, the person who has been divorced is to remain unmarried. From Jesus’ teaching, we realize why. If the person remarries she would be committing adultery. Remaining unmarried would also avoid the situation discussed in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, that God said He loathed. While we are not under the Old Law, Paul’s statements in I Corinthians 7:11 rules out the situation.

The exception clause does not appear in the apostle’s writings directly, but because Paul redirects our attention to the commandments of the Lord in I Corinthians 7:10 we understand that it exists. Paul didn’t repeat it because it wasn’t essential to the commands he was laying down for Christians.

Like the Jews of old, divorce has become a problem for Christians today. The core of the problem is the same: people are not taking their covenants made before God seriously. Thus, they seek out any excuse to leave their marriage; refusing to see the sin that results from their selfish action.

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