And Pharisees came up to [Jesus] and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 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. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matthew 19:3-12)
To be candid with you, addressing the topic of divorce feels a bit like walking into a minefield. Not only is it a sensitive subject for people who are divorced, but it also has a way of stirring up strong opinions from many others. I don’t know that I’ve ever preached or written about divorce where everyone has agreed with me. I have always heard from someone who took issue with something I said. Yet I can’t avoid it. Divorce is a sad reality we must deal with in the church.
I’ll begin with several statements I believe to be true based on my understanding of Scripture. Then, I’ll attempt to justify these statements as we go along.
First, divorce is a sin. It is a clear violation of the marriage covenant as ordained by God in the very beginning. We can talk about biblical exceptions to the rule or how one might receive forgiveness after a divorce, but we must first accept the truth that divorce is a sin.
Second, a divorced person can receive forgiveness. It may seem strange that I would make such an obvious point—at least I hope it’s obvious to you—but some Christians have an extraordinarily legalistic view regarding this particular sin. “Perhaps God will forgive you,” they say, “but the church cannot.” They will ekballō divorced people, that is, “unsynogogue” them. If you are divorced, you will be permanently removed from the church.
Before I continue, I want you to notice how easy it is for us to misstep. If we think too little of the marriage covenant, we’re prone to readily accept divorce as a practical option. Why else would the divorce rate among Christians be as high as it is? Divorce is a serious sin. Yet the Bible also says, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Ro 5:20). Our legalistic brothers need to give grace and forgiveness as much weight as they do the sinfulness of divorce. Divorce is a sin, but a divorced person can be forgiven.
Third, a divorced person should remain unmarried if at all possible. If you’ve studied this subject before, you know just how challenging it gets at this point. On the one hand, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife … and marries another, commits adultery” (Mt 19:9).
On the other hand, Paul writes, “If [the unmarried and widows] cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1Co 7:9). Paul uses a rare term in Scripture—we find it only in 1 Corinthians 7—agamos or “unmarried.” He speaks of three distinct groups: unmarried, widows, and virgins. If virgins have never been married and widows are no longer married because their spouse is dead, who are the so-called unmarried? We’re left with those who are no longer married because they got divorced.
In other words, we have what appears to be a contradiction in the Bible. Jesus says remarrying after divorce is adultery, but Paul advises divorced people to get remarried if they can’t stand being unmarried. I’ll talk more about that in a moment.
Fourth, remarriage after divorce may be a sin, but another divorce is not the answer. If someone gets remarried after a divorce, he or she might come under conviction and think repentance requires dissolving the second marriage. Since Jesus calls remarriage an act of adultery, it seems appropriate to divorce the second spouse, putting an end to the adulterous relationship. Technically, though, that would not solve the problem. In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “Everyone who divorces his wife … makes her commit adultery” (Mt 5:32). Never mind remarriage. Divorce itself is an act of adultery.
Adding to an already complicated subject, Jesus doesn’t say the one who initiates the divorce becomes an adulterer; he says the divorcee becomes an adulterer. How is that fair? Perhaps you can see why there are so many disagreements about divorce and remarriage.
I’ll do my best to put all of these claims and Bible passages together to form a coherent understanding of the subject, but let me offer two guiding principles which I hope will simplify things.
First, Genesis 2:24 must always be our foundation. God said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Ge 2:24). We should not move one inch from that verse. It should be at the heart of everything we understand about marriage, divorce, and remarriage. In other words, marriage is to be a permanent relationship between husband and wife. That is what God intended. That is what God’s law demands.
Second, Christ has set us free from the condemnation of the law. Paul says it this way in Romans 8: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Ro 8:1-2). I would encourage to read Romans 7-8 in its entirety because Paul tackles the difficult subject of law versus grace.
What does that have to do with marriage? Genesis 2:24 is God’s law for marriage, which means divorce is a violation of his law, condemning us before God. We become adulterers worthy of hell when we break the marriage covenant, but “the law of the Spirit of life has set [us] free in Christ Jesus” (Ro 8:2). That’s not to say we are free to sin all we want, but grace and forgiveness have to be factored into the equation. There is what the law of God demands, and there is also the reality of sinners (i.e., lawbreakers) living under the new covenant of grace.
Before we look at the text here in Matthew 19, let me show you what I mean in Matthew 5. Turn in your Bible to Matthew 5 and look at verse 17. Jesus tells the crowd:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)
Jesus defends the law of God, but he also takes things even further. Let’s keep reading:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
What is Jesus doing? He seems to take an already strict law and make it even harder to keep. That’s not entirely accurate. He’s not making the law harder to keep; he’s showing how difficult it has always been to keep the law. He’s contrasting the true law of God with the Jews’ typical interpretation of the law. He’s not making the law more difficult; the Jews had made the law easier to keep.
Next, he deals with lust. Everyone knew adultery was a sin, but Jesus adds, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:28). Do you see the point he’s trying to make? The Jews had developed a theology of self-righteousness where they believed their standing before God was adequate because they kept his law. Jesus is telling them, “No, you haven’t kept his law. You only think you have.”
Do you remember the story of the rich, young ruler? He asked, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt 19:16). Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. He tells Jesus, “I have.” “Okay,” Jesus says, “you’ll need to do one more thing. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” His answer surprises even his disciples. They ask, “Who then can be saved?” (Mt 19:25). Jesus was making it impossible for any human being to do enough good to be saved. How then can we be saved? That is when Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26).
What was Jesus doing here in Matthew 5? To put it in simple terms, he’s teaching the law. He’s not teaching the law as the Pharisees taught it, but he’s teaching the fullness of the law. His aim is to show people that keeping the law is impossible for man. We can’t do it. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). But there’s no need to worry. Christ came to fulfill the law for us.
Keep that mind as we read verses 31 and 32. Jesus says:
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 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)
According to the Pharisees’ interpretation of the law, divorce is almost always an acceptable option as long as the husband makes it official with a certificate of divorce. Jesus says, “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. That’s not what the law of God says.”
We’ll look at the details of this hypothetical scenario in a moment. For now, I just want you to see what Christ was conveying to his audience. Generally speaking, the Jews made all kinds of exceptions to the law. They undermined it by limiting its severity. They created loopholes and offered interpretations that made it easier for them to keep the law. Christ is destroying the loopholes. He’s restoring a proper interpretation of the law. Ultimately, he wants them to realize they cannot keep the law. They cannot save themselves.
Concerning marriage, divorce was never acceptable. What does God’s law say about marriage? Genesis 2:24: “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” They join together and stay together. If not, they violate the law. In other words, divorce condemns them before God just as lust or unrighteous anger does.
Where does that leave the divorced person? It leaves him or her in an eternity of trouble. Paul says, “The wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23).
Here’s where I pause for dramatic effect. You know as well as I do Paul didn’t leave it at that. He said, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 6:23). “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26),
Are you divorced? Let’s be clear. Divorce does not happen without sin, assuming the divorce itself isn’t the sin. It leaves us defiled and guilty before God. It makes us adulterers tainted with the stench of God’s broken law. It throws us into the group of unrighteous people who will not inherit the kingdom of God. First Corinthians 6 says:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)
While the sin of divorce disqualifies us from entering the kingdom of God, Jesus qualifies us. Who among us hasn’t committed one of the sins Paul mentions? Who hasn’t become angry with his brother without cause? Who hasn’t lusted in his heart? Of course, we’re guilty before God, but Christ has set us free from the condemnation of the law.
I told you addressing this subject feels like walking through a minefield. On the one hand, I need to make it clear that God’s law is God’s law. The new covenant of grace doesn’t change what God says is right nor does it allow us to sin freely. On the other hand, we shouldn’t treat divorce as though it is an unforgivable sin. It is a sin, but the Bible tells believers, “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1Co 6:11).
Let’s return to our text in Matthew 19.
The Pharisees approach Jesus with a question: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Mt 19:3). We don’t have to guess what they were doing because the text says, “Pharisees came up to him and tested him.”
Divorce was a controversial subject among the Jews because of a single phrase found in Deuteronomy 24. I’ll read the passage in question.
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 [that’s the key phrase in this passage], 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)
We’ll come back to this passage in a moment, but let’s focus on that phrase, “he has found some indecency in her” (Dt 24:1). What does that mean? It seems no one could agree. One school of thought said—and I’m quoting from the Jewish Mishnah—“A man may not divorce his wife unless he has found unchastity in her.” That was the conservative position. Others said, “[He may divorce her] even if she spoiled a dish for him.” Yet another said, “[He may divorce her] even if he found another fairer than she.”
We don’t know where the Pharisees stood, but they’re hoping Jesus will either contradict the law of Moses or upset enough people to lose some of his influence.
“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
He answers them directly and plainly. God said, “Hold fast to your wife.” How are we to interpret that command? Jesus says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt 19:6). Let not man chōrizō, that is, leave or divide. God joins a husband and his wife. By his sovereign authority, he ordains them to be one flesh. Man does not have the right to separate what God has joined together.
“But,” the Pharisees ask, “why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Mt 19:7). They’re referring to Deuteronomy 24. Do you remember hearing a command in what Moses wrote? He said, “When a man takes a wife … if … he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce—“ (Dt 24:1). Did he command anyone to send his wife away? Of course not. Moses would not contradict God’s law in Genesis 2.
Jesus answers, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8). He permitted it. He suffered it. He never commanded it.
Let’s talk about what was happening in the days of Moses. Obviously, men were divorcing their wives. In response, Moses said they need a reason. The divorce must be justified. What does it mean for a wife to act indecently? Jesus tells us here: “except for sexual immorality” (Mt 19:9). The conservative interpretation was the right interpretation. The law does not allow a man to divorce his wife because she burns his food or he finds another woman he likes more.
Moses did not make it easier to get a divorce; he made it harder. Assuming a man’s wife actually committed an indecent act, he was required to make it legal. He couldn’t merely throw her out on the street. Furthermore, she becomes defiled to him. To use Jesus’s language, she becomes an adulteress. Why wouldn’t she be? She acted indecently. She had an affair. She committed sexual immorality.
In Matthew 19, Jesus is defending the conservative interpretation of the Mosaic law concerning divorce. The law of marriage never changed. The covenant between a husband and his wife was always to be permanent, but the hearts of the people grew hard. As a result, Moses wanted to put an end to their unjustified divorces. If the divorce is unjustified, Jesus calls it adultery. The assumption is, that man will get remarried. But he made a covenant with his first wife, making the second marriage an act of adultery.
At this point, we should ask, if one gets divorced and remarried, should he or she divorce his or her second spouse? If it’s an act of adultery, shouldn’t we put an end to the relationship? Some would say yes, but that’s not what the Bible teaches. We have to make some pretty bold assumptions to build that case.
When someone gets divorced and remarried, it may be a sin, an act of defilement or adultery, but the second marriage is a binding covenant as much as the first. In John 4, Jesus tells a Samaritan woman, “You have had five husbands” (Jn 4:18). Notice he did not say, “You have had one husband and four affairs.” No, she had five husbands. Each marriage constituted a genuine marriage. We can’t repent of a sin by committing the same sin again.
Quickly, let’s turn over to 1 Corinthians 7 to hear what Paul has to say about remarriage.
In the beginning, I made four points. First, divorce is a sin. I think we’ve seen that in what Jesus taught. Divorce violates the law of God.
Second, a divorced person can receive forgiveness. Of course, they can, assuming they have repented. Repentance in the case of divorce as well as most sins doesn’t mean we undo what we’ve done. If one commits murder, he can’t undo his sin, but he can repent. Repentance means turning from sin. The divorced person realizes he’s sinned and vows to never do it again. Divorce is not a perpetual sin as some suggest.
Third, a divorced person should remain unmarried if at all possible. Starting at verse 8 of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul writes:
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)
As I said, “unmarried” or agamos is a term used only four times in the Bible, and they all appear in this one chapter. The word is just as generic in Greek as it is in English. It simply means to be single, but notice that Paul distinguishes the so-called unmarried from widows. Then, he distinguishes the unmarried from “the betrothed” or virgins in verse 25, giving them no commandment at all (1Co 7:25). I’ll also point out verse 11 which says, “If [the wife] does [separate from her husband], she should remain unmarried” (1Co 7:11). Paul specifically uses that term to refer to the state of singleness one finds himself after divorce.
In other words, he’s not referring to those who have never been married when he uses the word, unmarried. He’s also not referring to those who were married and lost his or her spouse to death. He has distinct terms for those groups. Instead, he seems to be talking about those who are divorced.
What advice does he give them? He tells them to remain single. If at all possible, remain single. He repeats himself in verse 26:
I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman [literally, a virgin] marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. (1 Corinthians 7:26-29)
Paul isn’t against marriage. He’s not suggesting you are morally superior if you remain single, yet we as Christians have more important things to worry about. The time is short. Marriage is temporary. “Never mind whether you’re single or married,” Paul says, “Our priority is the kingdom of God. We have eternal, spiritual service to commit ourselves to.”
After reading what Jesus had to say about divorce and remarriage, we would expect Paul to tell divorced people to remain single, but it’s what he says in verse 9 that may surprise us: “If they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1Co 7:9). In other words, it’s better for a divorced person to get remarried than continually struggle with temptations.
The legalistically-minded person will want to add caveats to the text. He’ll think, Paul was referring to those who got divorced before their conversions. Maybe, but he doesn’t say that. In fact, he contradicts that notion later in the chapter when he says, “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called” (1Co 7:20). A person’s conversion has no bearing on Paul’s teaching in this chapter.
He may also think, Paul assumes these people got divorced for the right reasons. Again, he doesn’t say that.
Is Paul contradicting Moses and Jesus on the matter of divorce and remarriage? My answer is no. First, he is not encouraging divorce. If you are married, he wants you to stay married. Second, he is not encouraging remarriage after a divorce. If you are divorced, he wants you to remain unmarried. Even so, he says it is better to get remarried than to live with a persistent temptation to commit sexual sin.
Next week, I’ll spend more time expounding on this chapter because Paul answers a lot of questions about marriage. For now, I want you to see those two guiding principles I mentioned before in this text. First, Genesis 2:24 must always be our foundation. Second, Christ has set us free from the condemnation of the law.
As much as anyone, Paul believes marriage is a binding covenant. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt 19:6). Yet he also believes sinners can be washed, sanctified, and justified. They can be forgiven through Christ. They can repent of their sins. They can break God’s law concerning marriage or any other matter, be freed from their former condemnation, and rise up to walk in newness of life where they find themselves serving the law with joy and thankfulness.
If you are divorced for any unbiblical reason, whether it happened before or after your conversion, don’t let the shame of your sin keep you in bondage. “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1Co 6:11). Instead, vow to keep the moral law of God from this day forward not because it binds you, but because you gladly serve the Lord our God.
If you are divorced, I believe you are better off remaining unmarried unless you “burn with passion” as Paul says (1Co 7:9). If temptations become too great for you to handle, by all means, get remarried.
If you are remarried following an unlawful divorce, remember your vow to serve the Lord and keep his moral law. “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mt 19:6).
Our view of marriage cannot be too high. Our hatred of adultery and divorce cannot be too great. Our willingness to love and forgive those who have sinned in this area cannot be encouraged enough.