We are in a sermon series called Inside Out. In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus is showing his disciples how their righteousness is to exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). The teachers had lowered the standards of the Law of Moses so that they believed they were attaining righteousness. Jesus is showing the true standard of God’s law and how the people have fallen woefully short. Remember that Jesus preaching repentance (Matthew 4:17) and the gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23). Jesus is teaching that there is depth to the law.
Jesus now quotes another teaching of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce'” (Matthew 5:31). This appears to be a summary of Deuteronomy 24, but we must not that this is not what Deuteronomy 24:1-4 taught at all.
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. (Deuteronomy 24:1–4 ESV)
You will notice that the command of Deuteronomy 24 was not a license or allowance to divorce, but a command not to remarry the defiled person who had been divorced. The Jews took this law to mean that a man could divorce his wife for any reason (which we explicitly read in Matthew 19:3). This was the common teaching. Josephus, who lived in the first century AD, records that divorce was permitted “for any causes whatsoever” (Ant. 4.8.23). The apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus, which is not inspired but was written around 150 BC, stated, “If she will not do as you tell her, get rid of her” (25:26). The Mishnah (which was the authoritative collection of the oral traditions of Jewish law) which was composed around 200 AD stated all kinds of ridiculous grounds for divorce including if she was barren, if she had a physical defect, if she had poor posture or thinning hair, if she ate something he forbid her to eat, if she burned his meal, or if he simply found someone that he thought was prettier (see Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, 125-126). From reading ancient Jewish sources the impression is that divorce was relatively easy and was not considered a grave misdeed.
Unfortunately, our world also believes that divorce can be for any reason. If you do not want to be married anymore, you do not need any cause at all to get a divorce today. People divorce and remarry for all kinds of reasons including no reason at all except wanting to be with someone else. Even the Christian world has moved with our culture in the same direction and does not uphold the sanctity of marriage. The only test for a reasonable divorce today is if the person is going to be happy by divorcing. There truly is no other concern. Is this what God taught? Is this what the Law said? Could a person divorce for any reason? Jesus now states what God’s law regarding marriage has always been.
God’s Universal Marriage Law
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 5:32 ESV)
Notice how different the actual law of God was in contrast to what the Pharisees and scribes taught. What the people taught was that you could divorce for any reason. God taught that everyone who divorces his wife commits adultery (Matthew 19:9) and makes her commit adultery (Matthew 5:32), unless the divorce was for the cause of sexual immorality. The Old Testament ideal for marriage was not changed by Jesus. The marriage law of Genesis 2 is maintained by Moses, Jesus, and Paul.
The message is that you do not get out of marriage. Marriage is for life. Marriage must not be entered into flippantly but covenantally. You are married for life. Can you divorce for any reason? The answer Jesus gives is no. But this is not a new command but was the intent of God when he blessed humanity with the gift of marriage in Genesis 2. “The two shall become one flesh” means that they are not to separate from each other because they are now one. This is how every marriage must be entered. This is a covenant made between the man and the woman, joined together by God for life. People are not to divorce and certainly God’s people are not to divorce.
You will notice that there is only reason allowed by God for divorce and that is for marital unfaithfulness. We have studied this word translated “sexual immorality” in our other studies, like 1 Corinthians 7. But allow me to remind you that the Greek word is porneia which is a broad word used for any kind of physical sexual activity. This was not given as a way out of marriage but the only ground given for divorce that is not sin. What I mean is that the divorce is to occur because of the sexual immorality committed has destroyed the marriage. Sexual immorality is not the escape hatch but is the reason that the marriage has splintered. God recognized that this was the effect of sexual immorality. Sexual immorality destroys the trust that was built in the marriage. Sexual immorality damages the relationship that may not be able to be repaired. Jesus is not saying that one has to divorce. But the option is given when sexual immorality occurs within marriage.
The Consequence of Divorce
But Jesus draws attention to what happens when there is a divorce that is not for the cause of sexual immorality. We are used to saying that if you divorce and remarry YOU commit adultery. We read Jesus saying this in Matthew 19:9.
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9 ESV)
If you read Matthew 5:32 carefully you will notice that this is not exactly what Jesus taught in this sermon. You will see that it is a little different when describing the effect of divorce. The first distinction is in who is committing adultery. Not only is the person who divorces not for the cause of sexual immorality committing adultery but the person who is divorced is made to commit adultery. Why would it be that you would make the woman commit adultery? The assumption is that this divorced woman would have to remarry. Remember that we have an entirely different society in the first century Israel than we do today. She was not going to be in court, get half the assets, receive alimony, go get a job, rent an apartment, and therefore take care of herself. This would not be possible. She would have to marry to be cared for and provided for. She would not have a choice. This is why he makes her commit adultery. He has divorced for some cause or no cause at all that is not the cause of sexual immorality given by God, and now we she is put in the position of marrying another, which is adultery.
Further, notice there is even more affected by this divorce. The person who marries this divorced woman is also committing adultery, according to Jesus in Matthew 5:32. He unlawfully divorced her. When he remarries, he commits adultery. When she remarries, she commits adultery. Further, whoever marries either of them also commits adultery. This unlawful divorce is causing all kinds of people to be drawn into sin. Jesus teaches these people that when the husband divorced his wife, he was committing adultery, he was causing her to commit adultery, and whoever married her was also committing adultery.
Jesus sets forward an important principle: a person who has no right to divorce has no right to remarry. To remarry initiates a whole chain of adultery because remarriage after divorce results in adulterous relationships for all parties involved.
Let us return to the thrust of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is resetting the high bar of God’s law to where it belongs because the teachers of the law had lowered it. They taught that divorce for any reason was acceptable to God. Jesus told them that they were wrong and that there is to be no divorce at all unless for the cause of sexual immorality. This was to cause people to see their sinful state before God and understand that they were not keeping the law as God gave it. So what were the people who were divorced to do?
We must state that all sins can be forgiven. We can be forgiven of committing adultery and we can be forgiven for divorcing for the wrong reason. We spoke about this in the last lesson. But just because we are forgiven by God does not mean that there are not consequences for our actions. While Jesus did explicitly teach what to do if you are divorced, Paul did.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10–11 ESV)
Notice that the apostle Paul quotes Jesus’ command to not divorce. But then Paul gives what the solution is to be for the person who is divorced not for the cause of sexual immorality. “But if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.” If you have divorced and the reason for the divorce was not because your spouse cheated on you, then you have two options: remain unmarried the rest of your days or be reconciled to your spouse.
Now many seem to find this command difficult. But I want us to think about what Jesus said regarding lust and apply it to this situation. It is better to sacrifice marriage now and enter heaven then willfully choose to disregard God’s marriage law, remarry which is adultery and lose your soul in eternal punishment. While it is difficult to remain unmarried, it is better than choosing to violate God’s command for marriage and divorce. You can be forgiven of your sins. But the truly repentant and contrite heart desires to do whatever God says. When we see the gravity of our sins and how sinful we are, and then see the grace of God to forgive us from all our sins, then we will have the desire to do whatever he says because God has graciously chosen to forgive us for what we have done. Do not look at what you think you are losing by remaining unmarried or being reconciled. Rather think about how you have severely violated God’s law but graciously forgives for what you have done. Now we are grateful that we can still be in relationship with Jesus and we able to stop the chain of adultery so that no other people are committing adultery because of our sinful decisions.