Divorce and Remarriage: It’s Time We Listened To What Jesus Says

Divorce is a big problem in the world today.  An equally disturbing problem is the tendency so many have to divorce and remarry outside of the parameters of Scripture.

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.

Malachi 2:16

Divorce.  God says it’s a treacherous, violent act.  How true that is.

According to Second Chance by Judith Wallerstein, almost half of children of divorces enter adulthood as worried, under-achieving, self-deprecating, and sometimes angry young men and women.  Half of them grew up in settings in which the parents were fighting with each other even after the divorce.

According to The Great Divide by Daniel Evan Weiss, the average percentage change in a woman’s standard of living the year following a divorce is -73%.

A divorce is like an amputation:  You survive, but there’s less of you.

Margaret Atwood, Marriage Partnership

Remarriage after divorce is not without its problems, either.  One child interviewed for Tales out of High School: Marriage Partnership said, “I’m so lucky my parents have stayed together.  Unlike so many of my friends, I’ve never had to cry on a holiday.”

Rock star Art Alexis wrote a song called “Wonderful” about how his divorce impacted his song.  He wrote of the child telling the divorced parent:  “I don’t want to meet your friend/I don’t want to start all over again/I just want my life to be the same/Just like it used to be.  Some days I hate everything/Everyone and everything/Please don’t tell me everything’s wonderful now.”

Yes, divorce is a treacherous, violent act.  On top of that, many remarriages after divorce are unlawful in the sight of God, constituting what Jesus calls adultery.  So while I am very much concerned about the social and psychological effects of divorce and remarriage, I am even more concerned about the spiritual effects.  Too many do not know what the Bible teaches on this subject.  That ignorance leads to quick and easy divorces, which in turn lead to adulterous marriages which are sinful in the sight of God.  Those in turn, if not repented of, will lead to eternal condemnation (Rom. 6:23; Rev. 21:8).

In Matthew 19:3-12, Jesus discussed divorce, remarriage, and celibacy.  The Pharisees had asked him about divorce, not because they wanted to learn from him, but because they were trying to trap him (v. 3).  Divorce was a touchy subject back then, just like it is today.  It was not uncommon either.  Jesus’ cousin John had been thrown into prison and eventually executed because he publicly condemned the unlawful marriage of King Herod (Mark 6:14ff).  The Jewish scribes of Jesus’ day were divided over the proper grounds for divorce.  One school of thought taught that a man could divorce for just about any reason, while another permitted divorce only in the case of fornication.

Thus, any answer Jesus gave to their question would offend someone.  If he took the popular liberal view that one could divorce for any reason, the Pharisees could castigate him for not being a teacher of superior morality, especially since he had taught his followers to strive a superior righteousness to theirs (Matt. 5:20).  If he upheld the stricter view, he would be unpopular with the majority of the people and his enemies could use that against him as well.

I am so thankful Jesus was not concerned with what man thought, but was concerned about pleasing his Father in heaven (Gal. 1:10; 1 Cor. 4:3).  Our primary goal must always be to please God.  We will never be able to please everyone else.  Someone, no matter what we do or say, will be displeased with us.  If we do our best to please God in every way, that will be the only things which matters in the end…and we will please and encourage like-minded souls in the meantime.

Jesus showed how his priority was to please God in his answer to their question.  First, he went straight to God’s Word (v. 4; cf. Gen. 1:27; 2:24).  He didn’t care about the opinions of the religious leaders of his day.  Likewise, we also must go to the Bible rather than to man.

In doing so, Jesus reminded them of their beginning:  “…he who created them from the beginning made them male and female…” (v. 4)  Always keep in mind where you came from, who created you, and what you are.  Friends, are we simply animals?  Compelled by instinct?  Unable to control fleshly desires?  Because if we are, divorce and remarriage ought to be free and easy.  But we aren’t.  We are God’s highest creation, made in his image, and thus able to control the fleshly lusts to his glory.  Thus, divorce and remarriage ought to reflect God’s desire for our holiness.

Jesus then attributed the institution of marriage to God, not man, when he quoted God’s statement, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (v. 5; cf. Gen. 2:24).  Questions about marriage, divorce, and remarriage must be answered by God in his Word, not by man and man’s laws!

It is God who creates a marital union, not man!  Jesus emphasized this when he said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (vs. 5-6).  God wants marriage to be for life!  It is God who joins the couple, and no one has the right to tear apart what he has joined together!

Are there any exceptions to this rule?  The Pharisees thought so, and attempted to rebut Christ’s teachings on this matter by apparently alleging Old Testament scriptural authority for divorce (v. 7; cf. Deut. 24:1-4).  Apparently, they took Moses’ statement in Deuteronomy to permit divorce as long as a certificate of divorce was given to the wife (cf. Matt. 5:31a).  In actuality, Moses was forbidding the remarriage of a spouse who marries someone else.  Why?

…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…”

Deuteronomy 24:4

In spite of any certificate of divorce, the woman became “defiled” when she remarried.  Interestingly, this same word “defiled” was used elsewhere in the Law of Moses to describe adultery (Lev. 18:20; Num. 5:13-14).  Thus, Old Testament law showed that by remarrying the woman had actually defiled herself by becoming an adulteress because her husband was still alive (cf. Rom. 7:1-3).

How ironic that the Pharisees were appealing to Deuteronomy 24 as grounds for divorce (and presumably remarriage) when in reality Moses was actually describing how treacherous divorce really is in that it defiles the spouse!  No wonder Jesus had said in the Sermon on the Mount:

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

Jesus reinforced how the Pharisees had the wrong idea when he then brought out how Moses permitted divorce due to their hard hearts (v. 8).  During Moses’ day, the Jews were a very “stubborn people” (Deut. 9:6), very hardened in their hearts.  When you think about it, doesn’t this describe the state of one’s heart when they want to divorce their spouse for arbitrary, unscriptural reasons?  Even when a scriptural reason is on the table but the guilty spouse has repented and is pleading for forgiveness and reconciliation, those with hard hearts will still push for divorce.  As Christians, we are to be different from the world…and the world has hard hearts.

Then Jesus brought out how divorce was not what God had in mind from the beginning, even though Moses permitted it (v. 8).  The Law of Moses was designed to be temporary in nature (Gal. 3:19), and thus the permission to divorce was only temporary.  It would be replaced by the gospel of Christ, a covenant designed to cure hard hearts, a law under which divorce under normal conditions is not an option (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

Jesus then settled the entire matter:

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.

Matthew 19:9

According to Jesus, divorce is allowed only in the case of sexual immorality (better translated as “fornication.”)  Divorce for any other reason results in adultery when there is remarriage (cf. Matt. 5:32).

Any divorce must be on those grounds specified by Jesus because marriage was ordained by God and we mustn’t separate what God has joined (vs. 5-6).  A divorce for any other reason attempts to separate what God has joined and results in a remarriage where people commit adultery.

As you might expect, there was strong reaction to this teaching.  Interestingly, it is not revealed how the Pharisees reacted.  Instead, we are told how Jesus’ own disciples reacted:

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”

Matthew 19:10

Wow.  According to his disciples, the single life would be preferable to staying with one’s wife, no matter what, her fornication being the only exception!  At least they were willing to still obey Christ’s law on the subject.  The only thing they were saying was that in view of his teaching, it was better to be celibate.  Contrast that to what many people today say:  “If such is the case with divorce and remarriage, it is better to be lost!”  Rather than submit to scriptural marriage or celibacy, many people are more likely to opt for eternal condemnation!  How foolish and sad to opt for a few years of adultery over an eternity of heavenly bliss!

How did Jesus react to what his disciples said?

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 19:11-12

Friends, does the kingdom of heaven mean more to us than anything else?  Jesus said it must (Matt. 6:33).  If it does, we will be willing to do whatever necessary to enter it, even if it means making ourselves eunuchs (i.e., choosing to remain single and celibate in order to remain true to his teachings about divorce and remarriage.)  Christianity is not a religion of convenience.  Sometimes sacrifices like these have to happen in order to be faithful.  We must put Christ before all, even our spouse (Mark 10:29-30), even if it requires us to leave our spouse when we see from Scripture that we are violating God’s law by being married to them (v. 9).

It is in situations like this where our faith is really put to the test.  Because now it’s real, friends.  All to Jesus I Surrender?  Scenarios like what we’re talking about prove whether we really mean that.

Those who put God’s kingdom first will mean it.  Those who don’t, won’t.  These are the ones about whom Jesus was referring when he talked of those who could not “receive this saying.”  However, those who value entering the kingdom of heaven will comply with Jesus teachings.  If they find themselves in unlawful, adulterous marriage, they still have hope through the forgiving power of the blood of Christ!   However, as with any sin one must repent first (Acts 3:19).  One must leave any relationship described by God as adultery in order to be forgiven of adultery.

Some do not see this.  They teach that only Christians have to obey what Jesus said in verse 9…even though Jesus said “whoever,” not just Christians.

Others say that baptism – without repentance – cleanses the sin and couples who live together in adultery can continue to do so after baptism…even though both repentance AND baptism are commanded for forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38).

Still others try to get around the plain teachings of Jesus by attempting to re-define the term “adultery.”  They say that adultery is not only a sexual word, but also refers to the act of divorce itself.  In other words, adultery is “covenant-breaking.”

You know, the idea that divorce = adultery is very attractive.  Our sinful society would love to accept it.  However, it is directly opposed to biblical teaching, and opens wide the door of compromise and accepting into the fellowship of the church those who are out of fellowship with God (cf. 1 John 1:7; Eph. 5:11).

The facts are these.  One would have to work very hard to come up with the doctrine divorce = adultery from the Bible.  One would have to ignore some very clear Bible teaching in the process.  Granted it would be nice if it were actually possible because it would make the church more popular in our society and open the door for fellowship to be accepted with people who had been divorced and remarried multiple times.  It would certainly lower the amount of hate mail I’ll probably get from writing articles like this.

Several over the years have tried to make the Bible fit this erroneous doctrine.  For example, Tyndale’s translation of Matthew 5:32 is as follows:

But I say unto you: whosoever puts away his wife (except for fornication) causeth her TO BREAK MATRIMONY, and whosoevery marrieth her that is divorced, BREAKETH WEDLOCK…

(emphasis mine)

Tyndale uses the words matrimony and wedlock when the word in the Greek literally means adultery.  Why?  Because he’s trying to define adultery as the breaking of the wedlock or matrimony.

Here’s my question, though.  How could wedlock be broken by someone marrying someone else IF THE WEDLOCK HAD ALREADY BEEN BROKEN BY THE DIVORCE??

Not only that, but if divorce = adultery, then the innocent party who tried to keep the marriage together but who was divorced anyway IS NOW GUILTY OF ADULTERY AND SIN BY PROXY!!  

It just doesn’t add up.

It doesn’t stop there, though.  Others would try to say that divorce = adultery by denying that adultery is a sexual word.  To them, fornication is a sexual word, but adultery actually means “covenant breaking.”

Fornication IS a sexual word, true.  Strong defines it as “harlotry (including adultery and incest); figuratively, idolatry.”  Thayer defines it as “illicit sexual intercourse” and, interestingly, includes adultery among the acts defined as that.

However, adultery is also a sexual word.  To deny that would require ignoring the unanimous consensus of Hebrew and Greek authorities and the emphasis of Scripture itself.

Adultery (moichatai in Greek) is defined by Strong as “to commit adultery.”  Thayer defines it:  “to have unlawful intercourse with another’s wife, to commit adultery with.”  I have a list in my office of seven different Greek-English lexicons, and not one of them defines adultery as divorce at any time.  They always define it as a sexual sin.

The various English translations of the Bible do the same.  Matthew 5:32’s moichatai is translated “adultery” rather than “covenant breaking,” “marriage breaking,” or “divorce” by the KJV, NIV, NKJV, RSV, TLB, ASV, NBV, NASV, and ESV.  Even Tyndale’s version, which comes the closest to calling adultery “breaking matrimony” or “breaking wedlock,” will not go so far as it call it “divorce.”

It’s the same with Matthew 19:9.  The KJV, NIV, NKJV, RSV, TLB, ASV, NBV, NASV, and ESV all translate moichatai as “adultery” rather than “covenant breaking,” “marriage breaking,” or “divorce.”

Examine Scripture, and you’ll see the term adultery used as a sexual term (cf. Lev. 20:10-11; Jer. 29:23; John 8:1-4; Heb. 13:4).  Even in cases in which adultery is used figuratively to describe idol worship and apostasy, the term still carries sexual overtones (cf. Ezek. 16:25, 32).  In one such case, Jeremiah made an analogy of God and Israel as husband and wife, but said that the figurative adultery committed by Israel via pagan idolatry occurred BEFORE God figuratively “divorced” her (Jer. 3:6-10).  In other words, adultery had been committed before there had been a divorce.  If adultery IS divorce, how could that be?  How can one say that adultery is not a sexual word, but is instead merely “divorce” or “covenant breaking”?

One can’t.

Yes, it’s well past time we started listening to Jesus and Jesus alone about divorce and remarriage.  More preachers and teachers need to preach and teach the truth about this matter.  More elders need to stand behind preachers and teachers who do so.

Most importantly, more Christian marriages need to heed it.  Marriage is sacred.  It must be defended.  It must be fought for.  It must be a commitment.

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