31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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 5:31-32
This quote from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has been used by many as a justification for divorce in the case of adultery. I recently preached on this subject and tried to explain why this passage does not offer a reason for divorce. This blog is an attempt to offer more detailed information on this subject.
Due to the emotional nature of this topic please listen to the sermon on this topic. The amount of space I have to write regarding this topic cannot both express the doctrine clearly, as well as communicate the grace offered by Christ and my pastor’s heart. Nevertheless I will do my best.
OLD TESTAMENT CONTEXT
‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ – Matthew 5:31
Jesus starts his teaching on divorce by paraphrasing Deuteronomy 24:1;
“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, – Deuteronomy 24:1
The key word here is “indecency” the Hebrew word for “indecency” is “עֶרְוָה ʿěrwā(h) meaning: nakedness, genital area” It’s not difficult to see the Old Testament reason for divorce is “adultery” since the “indecency” involves “genitals and nakedness.”
Overtime this “reason” for divorce became more liberal (as most doctrines do) amongst some Jewish teachers. One of the most famous was Hillel who taught, “indecency” could mean anything the man didn’t approve of. On the other hand, Shammai another popular Jewish rabbi taught “indecency” only applied to major offenses, like adultery.
So that’s the Jewish context.
Jesus later, dealing with the same question of divorce, offers a commentary on Deuteronomy he doesn’t offer in Matthew 5. Look at what Jesus says in Matthew 19 regarding Deuteronomy’s (written by Moses) divorce statement,
“Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. – Matthew 19:7-8
So Jesus says, that Moses allowed for divorce because of the “hardness of hearts” of the early Jewish people, BUT from the beginning it was not so. What kind of divorce did Moses allow? Based on what we know of the Hebrew word “indecent” in Deuteronomy, the kind of divorce Moses allowed was one based on adultery. Jesus is saying clearly here that is no longer the case and was not the original way God designed marriage.
That should be enough. In fact I wish Jesus would’ve just stopped there, because now it is very clear that Jesus is offering a deeper understanding of marriage, and adultery is not a reason for divorce.
THE EXCEPTION CLAUSE
But he didn’t stop there. He continues and paraphrases himself from Matthew 5:31
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31
Let’s take this piece-by-piece.
And I say to you,
Jesus is affirming here what he just said, “Moses said ____, but God intended ____ regarding marriage.”
What was it God intended? I believe it is, “there’s no just cause to end a marriage.” Here’s what Jesus says about what “God intended,”
whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
This is where it gets sticky. So let’s take this phrasing apart so we can understand what God intended for marriage.
Let’s remove one phrase, don’t worry we’ll put it back.
whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
“whoever divorces his wife, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Okay you see what I did there. I removed the exception clause. So what is Jesus saying here? When someone gets a divorce and remarries they commit adultery. Very clear. Why? Because, man can’t separate what God has put together, they are one in flesh. Therefore any 2nd marriage is not the marriage God has put together. It is adultery.
So what does the “exception” clause mean? That’s tougher to figure out all by itself, but in the context of the entire passage including Deuteronomy we can see that Jesus is not offering an exception for divorce. That wouldn’t make any sense. That’s the exception Moses and Shammai offered for divorce. Jesus just said, that wasn’t what God intended for marriage. So what does the exception mean?
Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “except for adultery (Greek Word: moichao)” he says, “except for sexual immorality (Greek Word: pornea).” So Jesus’ possible “exception clause” doesn’t say, “adultery” it’s “pornea,” a broader Greek word including many forms a sexual promiscuity. So, is Jesus now saying that one can get a divorce for multiple reasons not just adultery, but now in addition you can get a divorce if your spouse has a porn addiction, lust problem, or dresses immodestly? That doesn’t seem likely.
Then what is happening with the exception clause?
Reading this passage in fuller context forces us to apply the exception clause differently. In fact, this might help, the word “except” is “paraketos” can also be translated as “in addition” use “in addition” in place of “except.”
whoever divorces his wife, except in addition to sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
Well that makes a lot more sense doesn’t it? Especially having just read Matthew 19 regarding what Moses said in Deuteronomy. Jesus is saying, what God intended for marriage, when someone attempts to break what God has put together, even if “indecency” or “pornea” occurs they are still committing adultery when they remarry.
GREATER SCOPE OF SCRIPTURE
This interpretation of this passage gives us a higher view of marriage and fits best in the greater understanding of Scripture. I’ll be brief but there are four ways this interpretation better fits into the larger narrative of Scripture.
- The First Marriage (Genesis 2:1)
24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.
Jesus and Paul quote this verse almost every time marriage is brought up. When a couple becomes husband and wife they become “one flesh.” One flesh is not separated easily. God knits us together for life. From the very beginning we are taught to have a marriage that is unbreakable.
- Hosea (Hosea 3:1-3)
The prophet Hosea is a story of a prophet (Hosea) called to marry a woman who is unfaithful. In fact, as a whore, it’s her job to be unfaithful! God commands him to marry her knowing who she is and what she will do. Ultimately, it’s a story about the hearts of God’s people turning from Him to other gods. God is showing them a living picture of their hearts through Hosea’s marriage.
As you would expect with someone unfaithful, she leaves him. And then the most shocking and most beautiful thing happens. Look at Hosea 3:1-3:
And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” 2 So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. 3 And I said to her, “You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.” – Hosea 3:1-3
As a model of God’s redeeming love He sends Hosea to redeem or buy back his wife from her sin. So why would God tell Hosea to stick it out in an unfaithful marriage to show Israel His love for them and then Jesus say the opposite? He wouldn’t and he didn’t.
- First Corinthians
10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
In I Corinthians 7:10-11 the Apostle Paul offers a commentary on what Jesus taught about divorce. In it he does not mention the “exception” clause. Later in the passage when he does offer a reason for divorce adultery is never listed as a possible reason. And we know adultery was prevalent in the Corinthian church from I Corinthians 6. Nevertheless Paul, referring to what Jesus taught, does not council the Corinthians to seek divorces for this reason.
- New Testament Marriage reflects God’s covenant love (Ephesians 5:31-32)
This high view of marriage is affirmed in Ephesians as well. When Paul writes:
31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. – Ephesians 5:31-32
Marriage reflects the relationship Jesus has with the church. Earlier in the same passage we see men are to love their wife like Jesus loves the church and the wife is to respect or submit to her husband as the church does so with Jesus.
IF THE MARRIAGE RELATIONSHIP IS A REFLECTION OF OUR GOSPEL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD…IT BEGS THE QUESTION. IS THERE ANY SIN THAT REMOVES GOD FROM US? NO!
If your marriage was meant to reveal the depths of God’s love for us then it should be said that there is no valid reason to end a marriage in the same way there is no reason God ends His relationship with us. That’s what Hosea teaches us. That’s what Ephesians teaches us. And that is consistent with the message of Jesus.
Therefore, I conclude, Jesus is not offering an exception for divorce, he is doing what he has done throughout the Gospels; Giving us greater clarity to how we are to see God and how we are to follow God.
That means a divorce requires grace. And we are blessed to have all the grace we need in Christ Jesus. He forgives all of us if we are faithful to confess our sins to him and repent. He loves you. Divorced. Addicted. Angry. Drunk. Stoned. Bitter. Envious. He loves you. Own your sin. So you can lay it at his feet, repent and experience the grace he has so freely offered all of us.