Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immoralitya causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.
(Matt. 5:32-32, NKJV)
So far in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ words have already been pretty radical. He’s taken old commandments (“You shall not murder”, “You shall not commit adultery”) and extended them to also mean “you shall not hate” and “you shall not lust.”
Now He begins an even more revolutionary pattern. While still examining the topic of adultery and lust, he looks at an Old Testament command – and overrules it!
Since the days of Moses, divorce had been allowed. But now Jesus is saying very clearly that getting divorced is as bad as adultery, and marrying someone who is divorced is as bad as adultery – which, according to the OT Law, would have been punishable by death.
If the culture then was anything like it is today, this would have been a shocking statement! Many people wouldn’t have wanted to hear it!
But this is what Jesus, God the Son spoke. And if He was indeed bringing truth, then these verses are part of that truth.
And it must have been something very important to Him since He brought it up during the first third of His sermon.
This is part of what it means to be a part of the Kingdom of Heaven: to be faithful to your spouse as a picture of God’s faithfulness to us.
Again, while it may have jolted His hearers, this idea that God does not like divorce and remarriage is not new.
Later, in Matthew 19, the Pharisees brought up the same subject with Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
Jesus gave a similar response to what He said here in chapter 5, but He expands upon it:
And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 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’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.”
They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”
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. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immoralitya, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
From the beginning, God has intended humankind to worship Him – and Him alone. And to be married to one spouse – and one spouse alone (until parted by death).
Divorce was allowed because of the hardness of heart found in Israel. But God is calling people to His kingdom who will not be hard of heart, so the allowance is no longer tolerated.
Now, it wouldn’t be fair to look at these verses without addressing what’s become known as the “exception clause.”
But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immoralitya causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.
Many people claim that phrase as an excuse for their divorce, so here’s a few things to consider:
- It’s Only In One Place. While these words of Jesus are recorded in each of the synoptic gospels (see Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18), the “exception clause” exists only in Matthew’s account. So until these gospels were circulated more widely, it’s quite possible only Matthew’s audience would have known about this exception.
- It May Be Translated Poorly. “Sexual immorality” may be better translated as “fornication,” which is indicated in the NKJV footnotes. This is significant, because fornication refers specifically to sexual immorality that occurs before marriage, not after it.
- It may be audience-specific. Dr. Joseph Webb, author of Till Death Do Us Part, suggests that #1 and #2 may be linked together in a significant way. In Jewish culture, the betrothal period was practically considered marriage, even though it wasn’t technically consumated. This is why, when Joseph suspected Mary to be guilty of fornication (sexual immorality before marriage), he considered a divorce to “put her away” (Matt. 1:19) – even though they were only betrothed at that point. Therefore it is possible that the reason the “exception clause” is only mentioned in Matthew’s account is because that was the only Gospel written specifically for a Jewish audience, who would have understood the “exception clause” for divorce to be referring to fornication during the betrothal period only.
Regardless of whether that theory is correct, keep in mind the following as well:
- Nobody’s Perfect. Jesus had practically just said in the previous verses that nearly every man in His audience was guilty of adultery if they had lusted after a woman at any point. But He doesn’t seem to indicate in any way that all of their wives now have an excuse to split from them.
- God is Faithful to the Faithless. In the Old Testament, God’s relationship with Israel was often compared to a marriage. This was especially dramatized through the life of the prophet Hosea. Through his story we see an analogy to the way in which God chooses to continue to pursue His harlotrous wife, even as she leaves Him and cheats on Him by serving other gods. If God calls us to imitate Him, then may He also be calling us to be faithful even to an unfaithful spouse?
- God’s Divorce Didn’t End His Marriage. In Jeremiah 3, God compares His relationship with Israel to a divorce. But while He “divorces” the adulterous Israel in verse 8, He still calls to her with longing in verse 12, pleading with her to return to Him. In verse 14 He says, “Return, O backsliding children. . . for I am married to you.” Note that (1) He still sought reconciliation after divorce, and (2) He still referred to Himself as married to her. So the divorce was more like a separation in their relationship, rather than a complete dissolution.
- God Hates Divorce, and It Hinders Our Prayers. In Malachi 2, God harshly rebukes Israel (especially her “holy” priests) for their hypocrisy. While they seemed genuine in their pursuit of Him, even covering the altar with their tears, the LORD refused to accept their offerings. Why?
. . . 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.
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.
“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.”
There is much more that could be said on this topic, and more to be found even in the New Testament, but for the purposes of this post, I’m choosing to look at it only as a first-century Jew might have, who knows only the Old Testament writings and now the Gospel of Matthew.
Regardless of how the “exception clause” would have been understood by this Jew, he would have realized more fully the importance that God places on marriage. It is a holy institution that must not be taken lightly. Just as we are committing to God for all our lives and trusting that He will never leave us nor forsake us, so we should commit to our spouses for all of our lives, faithfully pursuing a God-honoring relationship.
“Till Death Do Us Part.”