Mar 06 - Divorce And Remarriage

Divorce And Remarriage

March 6, 2016

Matthew 5:31-32



March 6th, 2016

Matthew 5:31-32


Today, I want to cover the passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus speaks about divorce and remarriage. 


Under the Mosaic Law, husbands were allowed to divorce their wives.  However, they had to prove to some extent that there is a legitimate reason for the divorce, “some indecent matter” (Deut 24:1), some improper conduct on the part of the wife.  The Rabbis interpreted this “indecent matter” as public behaviour that would in any way shame the husband.[1] 


However, in Jesus’ day, what that shameful behaviour consisted of was under debate.  In the 1st century BC, two rabbis by the name of Hillel and Shammai founded opposing rabbinic schools that were known as the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai.  The discussions and arguments between the two schools profoundly shaped the Judaism of the first century. 


One of their debates centered on the legitimate reasons for a husband to divorce his wife. 


The House of Hillel argued that “indecent matter” could refer to anything that the husband finds displeasing about his wife, so, for example, if his wife burned a meal.[2]  The House of Shammai, on the other hand, argued that the reason for divorce had to be for the more serious discretion of immodest behaviour or sexual immorality, however that was defined.[3] 


The indecent or shameful behaviour is not in reference to adultery … which had a much harsher punishment than divorce.  In the Mishnah, a wife was considered to act immodestly if she goes out without her hair unbound, if she spins in public or speaks with a grown man other than her family members, if she curses the husband’s parents, or if her raised voice can be heard by her neighbours.[4]


Most commentators agree that Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage comes directly out of the discussion of these two rabbinic houses.


Something more has to be kept in mind before we delve into Jesus’ teaching.  The rabbis were quite clear that Jewish men had the absolute right to divorce their wives and remarry, period.  In fact men were the only ones who could initiate a divorce, and the wives had no recourse of any kind to prevent the divorce from happening. 


It was quite different for wives.  They could not initiate a divorce, even if their husbands beat them.  A wife could go to the village elders and ask them to put pressure on her husband to divorce her, but there was no guarantee that they would do so. 


The primary reason that would allow her to go to the elders is if her husband neglected or violated his marriage obligations, which were considered providing her with food, clothing and sexual intercourse based on a passage in Exodus:


If a husband takes another (slave) wife for himself, he is not allowed to diminish the food, clothing or marital rights (i.e., sexual intercourse) of his first (slave) wife.                                                                               Exodus 21:10[5]


The certificate of divorce that a husband gave to his wife, expressly allows her to remarry.  In other words, the intent of the divorce certificate is to free the wife to remarry.  Her husband specifically states in it that he gives up any rights of ownership or claim over his wife whatsoever, so that a potential second husband does not have to fear any kind of reprisal or negative social pressure. 


This document was so important because if a woman remarried without it, her second marriage was considered an adulterous one, and her children were considered illegitimate. 


A particularly difficult problem for a wife arose when her husband disappears and cannot be found - and there isn’t enough proof to establish that he is dead.  This could even be the case when a husband goes off to war and doesn’t return, but his body is not found.  In such a case the woman cannot remarry either without being considered an adulteress.


Keep these things in mind as we read about Jesus’ teaching on the subject.


Matt 5:31-32

Matt 19:3-11

Mark 10:2-12

Luke 16:18

1 Cor 7:10,11,15


And Pharisees came up to Jesus and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 


And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 





In the passage in Matt 19, the little phrase, “for any cause” is significant.  It indicates that the Pharisees who approached Jesus were likely of the House of Hillel, which held that the husband had the right to divorce his wife for any reason. 


Jesus first responds by acknowledging that the Law of Moses indeed gives husbands the right to divorce their wives by giving them a certificate of divorce. 


Matt 5

Matt 19

Mk 10

Lk 16

1 Cor 7






It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 








They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one not give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 


He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”  They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 





But Jesus didn’t let that deter him from pointing out that this was not God’s original design and intent for marriage:


Matt 5

Matt 19

Mk 10

Lk 16

1 Cor 7










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. 


He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, …

And Jesus said to them, “Because of your harness of heart, he wrote you this commandment. 













But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. 












Interestingly, Jesus saw the OT Law as coming from Moses rather than from God.  It was as if Moses himself, and not God, who made allowance for divorce based on the fallen, fallible, dysfunctional, selfish, and sinful human nature.  Jesus goes on.


Matt 5

Matt 19

Mk 10

Lk 16

1 Cor 7


‘Therefore a man will leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’?  So they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 

Therefore a man will leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife and the two will become one flesh. 

So they are no longer two but one flesh. 

What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 






And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 





Jesus’ teaching reflected his knowledge of the passage in Malachi 2:14-16 where God tells the Israelites that he will no longer hear their prayers because they had broken the covenant between themselves and God by worshipping idols in terms of a marriage.  The husband, in this case Israel, cheats on his wife, in this case God. 


The reason given that this is wrong is the same one Jesus gives:  God’s original design is that man and wife become one:


Did he (YHWH) not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?                                 Malachi 2:15


Since the husband and wife are one, divorce can be compared to murder:


For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, … covers his garments with violence.               Malachi 2:16


We may not agree with the reasoning, but this passage is likely why Jesus gave the answer to the question in the way he did.  No, it is not right for a husband to divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever.  There have to be significant reason for the divorce to be legitimate and thus allow the husband to remarry:


Matt 5

Matt 19

Mk 10

Lk 16

1 Cor 7

But I say to you that everyone who divorces[6] his wife … makes her commit adultery,

(should she remarry)



And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife … and marries another,

commits adultery.


And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another

commits adultery against her,



Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. 


And the husband should not divorce[7] his wife. … Are you bound to a wife?  Do not seek to be free.   



A husband who divorces his wife in essence is still married to her and she to him.  So when either remarry they are committing adultery against their respective first spouses.   Jesus then makes the very same point again in different words.


Matt 5

Matt 19

Mk 10

Lk 16

1 Cor 7

and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.



and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.

And he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord):  the wife should not separate[8] from her husband.  But if she does, she should remain single or else be reconciled to her husband.


In Matt and Luke, Jesus makes the point that any man who marries a divorced woman is also committing adultery because the divorced woman is still bound to her first husband. 


Jesus is not so much commenting about divorce … but about remarriage after divorce.  It seems that a divorced person should not remarry or else he or she is encountering the possibility that they are guilty of adultery in God’s eyes. 


Paul reflects this teaching when he writes to the believers in Corinth that a Christian wife who is divorced by her husband has to remain single until he dies or be reconciled to him. 


In Mark, Jesus adds an odd comment that really doesn’t make sense in the Jewish context – the situation where a wife divorces a husband.  Under Jewish law, a wife had no recourse to initiate a divorce.  It was different under Roman law, where wives could divorce their husband.


Possibly Mark wanted to clarify to his non-Jewish audience that the situation was the same regardless of which gender initiated the divorce.


Another possibility is that Jesus said that a divorced woman will commit adultery if she remarries and that a copyist turned this around to apply to his own Greco-Roman culture.


Whatever the case, it becomes clear that, given human nature, Jesus’ teaching is extremely hard to apply, especially if he did not allow for remarriage under any circumstances.


If we didn’t have the gospel of Matthew, that is what we would be confronted with.  However, in both passages in Matthew we have what is called the exemption clause:


Matt 5

Matt 19

Mk 10

Lk 16

1 Cor 7

Except on the grounds of sexual immorality.

Except on grounds of sexual immorality.



But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so.  In such cases the brother or sister is not bound.  God has called you to peace.


The reason why Jesus adds this, is likely because he takes a clear stance with the School of Shammai, that the “indecent behaviour” has to be of sufficient significance for a divorce to be legitimate.   


The Greek translation of Jesus’ words uses the word “porneio,” and it could refer to any sexual misconduct on the part of the wife.   But even with this exemption clause, Jesus’ closest followers did not think that his teaching was reasonable.


While Paul does not reflect the exemption clause in Matthew (likely because he was not aware of it), he has one of his own:  If a believer is abandoned or divorced by a non-believer, is the life-long bond between husband and wife broken.  While he doesn’t state so outright, Paul likely thought that remarriage was possible, although he adds that if there is remarriage, much like in a first marriage (cf. 2 Cor 6:14-18), it must always be to a fellow believer (1 Cor 7:39).


Matt 5

Matt 19

Mk 10

Lk 16

1 Cor 7


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.”             





Despite the exemption clause, Jesus closest followers thought his stance was impossible.  Better not to marry than to be stuck in a marriage that may be really awful even though the wife is faithful and modest


Jesus’ responds that not everyone will live out this marriage ethic.  He doesn’t elaborate as to who will be given the ability to do so, but he clearly thought it would be the norm of those who live under the rule of God, or in the kingdom of God.


If we look at the various cases mentioned and the resulting form of adultery, we can summarize:


Matt 5

Mk 10

Matt 19; Mk 10; Lk 16

Matt 5; Lk 16

Divorcing ones wife

Divorcing ones husband (poss. being divorced by the husband) and marrying another

Divorcing ones wife and marrying another

Marrying a divorce woman

Causes the divorced wife to commit adultery (should she remarry)



Wife commits adultery against her first husband

Husband commits adultery against his first wife

Second husband commits adultery against the first husband


In 1 Cor 7, Paul back this up when he says that the following points reflect Jesus teaching:


Husbands are not to divorce their wives

Wives are not to separate from their husbands

If wives separate from their husbands they should either remain single or be reconciled to their husbands


The underlying premise:  A married woman is bound to her husband, divorced or otherwise, until her husband dies. 


A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives.  But if the husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.           1 Corinthians 7:39


A married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives.  If he dies then she is released from the law governing marriage.  Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive.  But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.                                              Romans 7:2-3


However, Paul does not mention the same when it comes to the husbands.  Maybe he thought that it would be understood that the husband should act in the same way that the wife should.  Or maybe he was OK with husbands divorcing and remarrying, not aware of what Jesus taught about such a situation. 


Whatever the case, as we noted, telling a spouse who is abandoned or divorced not to remarry is very different from the social and legal conventions and practices in the Roman, Greek and Jewish cultures in the first century. 


So what do we do with this teaching in our day and age, where 50 % of first marriages and 75% of second marriages fail?  I can give you my version on this and you feel free to disagree if you want.


I have no right to hold non-believers to Jesus’ standard when comes to divorce and remarriage (or any of Jesus’ other teaching).


There is no need to wag the finger at our non-Christian family members or anyone else for that matter if they behave in ways that we personally disapprove of.  We are not called upon to judge, condemn or belittle them – ever!


By the way, I also don’t think that we have to feel condemned about anything we did or failed to do prior to becoming Christians. 


We have to think in broad terms about the legitimate reasons for divorce.


 So we have “indecent behaviour” in the OT, we have “sexual immorality” in Jesus, we have “abandonment by an unbeliever in Paul. 


We also have the ability of wives to approach the elders in the OT when her husband is not fulfilling his marriage obligations toward her – to provide for her physical and emotional needs, including shelter, food, clothing and sex. 


Bringing that into today, I think of all of these pointing to a persistent violation of the marriage vows to honour, cherish and be faithful.  A spouse who beats his wife refuses to honour.  A spouse who cheats refuses to be faithful.  A spouse who constantly berates refuses to cherish. 


= Persistent refusal to honour the marriage vows?


Most everyone goes into a marriage with the best of intentions to make the marriage work.  They don’t plan on a divorce.  Most people are absolutely sincere when they say, “Until death do us part.”  They are not planning the affair, they don’t plan to take the other person for granted, they don’t plan with being abusive or being abused.


And most of those who have gone through the pain and horror of a divorce don’t wish that on anyone else – or shouldn’t. 


Also keep in mind that we are all sinners.  We have all failed God and ourselves and others.  And we often have no idea what happens in a marriage relationship behind closed doors. 


So when we judge other believers too quickly or harshly because they decided to leave their spouse, the rock we are throwing may just take a couple of bounces and hit us square in the forehead.   


By the way, finding a broad definition for legitimate reasons for divorce as the persistent refusal to honour the marriage vow, does not mean the same as “divorce for any reason whatsoever.”  Which brings me to my third point:


Focus on preventing marriage relationships from deteriorating


Individuals and couples who want to take serious God’s will when it comes to divorce and remarriage, need to put a lot of effort in long before the arguing becomes the only way to communicate, long before the affair, long before the communication breakdown, long before resentments have built up, long before bitterness over past slights and hurts have begun to fester, long before one or both persistently refuse to honour the marriage vows.  You get the idea.


I only added three sub-points to this category.  Many, many more could be added, but I wanted to point out these three because I think they are crucial:


Focus on being a wholesome person rather than a toxic one


We all carry with us the potential to be human disasters, some of us more than others because of our insecurities, phobias, bad habits, background, or whatever. 


Even before we are married, in fact, our whole life long, we should strive to become better, more balanced, more wholesome, more peaceful, more joyful, and so on.  The best gift that we can give ourselves, our spouses, or our children, our friends, is being spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically sound. 


The reality is that, if we are not aware of what part of our personality contributed to the failure of our marriage, we will carry that same dysfunction, those very same attitudes and actions, into future relationships, likely with very much the same results. 


Unfortunately, most of us simply are not very self-aware, or we make excuses why we can’t treat others better, or we simply do not want to put in any effort to change ourselves for the better. 


“Work” hard at having a good marriage


By “working hard”, I mean that any good marriage needs considerable, determined, and conscious effort in making the marriage work.


It begins with premarital counseling, which is really only a method of finding out some of the areas of difficulty that could potentially arise because of different backgrounds, different ways of dealing with conflict, different attitudes about finances, chores, parenting, and so on, and working on finding resolutions and strategies before these become a real problem.


If you have not had premarital counseling – at least good premarital counseling, I believe that you’re behind the eight ball to some degree.


It continues in making sure there are date nights, words and actions of appreciation, specific ways of encouraging or building up the partner in ways that THEY appreciate, times away together, having proper rules of engagement and sticking to them when it comes to differences, and on and on.  There are literally 1000’s of ways of ensuring that a marriage is sound.


Seek help long before it’s too late


Often couples decide to go to marriage counseling when it is too late.  That is, usually one person, who doesn’t want a divorce, realizes that the other person is deeply unhappy, has checked out of the relationship emotionally, and has decided to leave. 


The person who wants to save the relationship suggests counseling, and the other person only goes because, either they want to be reaffirmed in their decision by the counselor, or to keep from being accused of not trying to save the marriage.   But in reality, at this point it is almost always too late. 


If you want your marriage to last, and you find that there are areas of reoccurring conflict, it’s time to find help.  If you find that the way that you deal with conflict is inherently bad, it’s time to find help.  If you find that either you or your spouse are acting and reacting in unwholesome ways to each other, it’s time to find help. 


Unfortunately many of us are simply too self-sufficient and too proud to admit that we may need help, that we cannot fix this on our own. 





either when I marry, or if I’m already in a marriage?


Prayer:  Help us to be those who treat our spouses with respect, honour and faithfulness.  Do whatever work you need to do in us to be the kind of people who can live out the covenant marriage as you intended.


[1] Atkinson 1981, 103.  However, slave wives could be divorced for almost any reason (Deut 21:24). 

[2] Git 9.10Rabbi Akiba adds, “even if he found another who is prettier than she.”

[3] ibid.

[4] Ketuboth 7.6

[5] See also Ezek 16:9-13 (God describes how well he took care of Israel as his wife, incl. giving her oil, clothing, jewelry and food); Hos 2:8-13 (God bemoaning the fact that he gave adulterous Israel food, wine, oil, jewelry, and wool and flax for clothing).  Oil was like perfume and could be interpreted as a sign of love.

[6] Apoluse, from apoluo (to release, to send away, to divorce)

[7] Aphienai from aphiemi (to send away, to divorce)

[8] Choristhenai from chorizo (to separate, possibly, to divorce).