I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.
Introduction: A False Assumption about Divorce
In his book The Quest for Character Chuck Swindoll gave this illustration. He said:
Sociologist and historian Carle Zimmerman, in his 1947 book Family and Civilization, recorded his keen observations as he compared the disintegration of various cultures with the parallel decline of family life in those cultures. Eight specific patterns of domestic behavior typified the downward spiral of each culture Zimmerman studied. They included:
1. Marriage loses its sacredness...is frequently broken by divorce.
2. Traditional meaning of the marriage ceremony is lost.
3. Feminist movements abound.
4. Increased public disrespect for parents and authority in general.
5. Acceleration of juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, and rebellion.
6. Refusal of people with traditional marriages to accept family responsibilities.
7. Growing desire for and acceptance of adultery.
8. Increasing interest in and spread of sexual perversions and sex-related crimes.
Though these observations were made years ago, they are still true today. As the family breaks down, so does a society. And sadly, our American society is experiencing all of these things in the 21st century.
According to the Bible, the original institution that was created that forms the basis for all of civilization begins when one man and one woman leave their father's and mother's household and are joined together, becoming one flesh in the bond of marriage (Genesis 2:24). And that bond is supposed to last a lifetime, for they were joined by God Himself (Mark 10:9).
Yet today the statistics for divorce are staggering in our country. From the website highnetworthdivorces.com we get these words:
Most people know that the divorce rate in the United States has been at approximately 50 percent.
However, there are some other ways to think about divorce that may surprise you:
According to the US Census Bureau:
In America, there is one divorce approximately every 36 seconds.
That’s nearly 2,400 divorces per day, 16,800 divorces per week and 876,000 divorces a year.
The average length of a marriage that ends in divorce is eight years.
People wait an average of three years after a divorce to remarry (if they remarry at all).
The average age for couples going through their first divorce is 30 years old.
There is no doubt that our society is in trouble. And what we need is to get back to a traditional Judeo-Christian view of the marriage bond. Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, discussed marriage and divorce. And, like other subjects which our Lord covered, He was correcting how the Jewish rabbis had distorted the Mosaic Law. Our Lord was bringing HIs listeners back to what was originally intended by God when the law was given.
And by doing this, He was showing, in this sermon, the true standards for entering and living in the Kingdom of Heaven. Further, if we take these standards seriously, then what we realize at the end is the utter impossibility of meeting them. And this should make us all very excited that God has provided a way of salvation for us that is totally by grace alone, through faith alone, in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ alone. For without it we'd all still be lost and without hope of ever making it into heaven.
With this in mind, let us look a little more carefully at what our Lord had to say about the subject of divorce. However, before we do that, let me say a word to those who, for whatever reason, have been divorced already.
I. A Word to the Already Divorced
It is interesting that there are some sins seen as so bad by many in the Christian church that they are almost deemed unpardonable. In many Christian circles it might be better to say that you murdered someone rather than admitting to being a divorced person.
While the marriage bond should never be taken lightly, and the dissolving of a marriage is tragic and is inevitably caused by the failures and sins of one or both parties it is not something that isn't covered by the blood of Jesus Christ.
Also, in comparing it to other issues in the sermon on the Mount, Jesus just got finished telling His listeners about selfish anger against our brother in Matthew 5:21-26. Our Lord suggests that verbal abuse, which comes from this anger and hatred, stems from the same sinful motives that ultimately lead to murder. Therefore, to abuse someone in this way carries the same guilt as the act itself. For murder begins, not with the act, but in the heart.
He also says, a few verses later, that merely looking at a woman to lust after her is like committing adultery with her in ones heart (5:27-30).
In other words, for those who think that they have a moral high ground against a person who has been divorced, they need to realize that we all fall short of God's glory and are in need of a Savior.
Further, it also implies that God can bring healing from the hurt of divorce, just as He can from every other situation in a person's life.
It is also interesting that God Himself is divorced which should suggest to us that there are at least some biblical grounds for allowing this since God does not sin.
In Jeremiah 3:8-10 God sees Himself as a husband whose wife, Israel, has committed adultery against Him with false gods. It states:
“I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. . . . Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense”
However, though God divorced His bride, Scripture says that later He invited her back. He promised to do what the Mosaic law could never do. He could restore a broken marriage relationship. In that same passage that appeared hopeless, God said to Israel:
“Return, faithless people,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I am your husband. I will choose you . . . and bring you to Zion” (Jeremiah 3:14).
All this is to say that divorce, though it almost always brings with it a host of negative emotions and practical problems, is not something beyond hope and certainly not beyond the grace and mercy of God.
Now let us look at Matthew 5:31-32 and see what Jesus says.
II. Jesus' Correction of False Teaching on Divorce
Jesus begins His talk on divorce by saying the words: "It is said..." As He had done earlier, our Lord was not correcting the law of Moses but its distortion. The rabbis were quoting from Deuteronomy 24:1-4 on the Law's teaching on divorce and making it say that which it didn't intend. They said:
"Whoever sends a wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce."
However, they construed it to mean that a man was allowed to divorce his wife for any and every reason. For example, if she burned dinner and it displeased him, she could potentially become an ex-wife. He merely had to make out the certificate.
However, the original intent of the law was to protect the woman who was divorced and not to justify or legalize divorce under all circumstances.
Jesus corrects the teaching by saying:
"But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." (31b-32).
Pastor Randy Blackaby has this to say about this passage:
"Jesus was teaching that a husband who puts away his wife, without the cause of adultery, exposes her to the severe temptation to remarry and thus commit adultery. The words used here concerning adultery are in the passive voice, grammatically, and thus imply being led or seduced into the act of adultery. Remarriage seems, deceptively, to be the only answer for such a divorced person.
While Jesus' words remain true today, in the first century, the pressures on a divorced woman to remarry may have been dramatically greater than today. An innocent woman divorced by her husband today faces dealing with the deprivation of her emotional, social, sexual, and other needs. But a woman in the first century was usually faced with the options of prostitution or finding another husband just to survive economically or physically.
Jesus was clearly rejecting the idea of divorce for any cause and telling a man who puts away an innocent wife that if his actions make her feel compelled to remarry (and thus commit adultery), he won't be held guiltless in the matter. His actions caused her to be in that position of temptation."
The bottom line is that God is a covenant-keeping God and He expects His people to keep covenants as well. Especially since He was the one to join the couple together and witness it. Any breaking of the covenant is sin, except for one who has a spouse who commits infidelity. For in that case the spouse has already broken the covenant themselves. When that happens one is given the option of divorce. However, it is not required. Reconciliation can be an option.
Another passage where this subject is mentioned is Matthew 19:3-12. Jesus is tested by the Pharisees. And His answer comes straight out of the book of Genesis where God first united husband and wife. It says this:
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Interestingly, the disciples here thought that the law for marriage was so strict here that they reasoned it might be better not to marry than to have to be subjected to them. Jesus here is not recommending celibacy to anyone but those who could handle it, which are very few. Either through natural causes or because of the violence of men some are forced into it. Still others may find it better not to marry for the good of the kingdom. The rest should get married. So marriage may be hard for them. However, celibacy would be even harder to live out.
So for most people, the mandates from Genesis to leave your father and mother and be united to your wife, or husband is the only way to go. It is the pattern for most believers. And for them, though marriage to one person for life may be hard, by God's grace it can be done.
And even if divorce occurs, the first thing to attempt to do is to reconcile the original marriage if at all possible. We see this more in the Apostle Paul's expansion on Jesus' teaching found in I Corinthians 7:10-17.
III. Paul's Expansion of Jesus' Teaching
Paul tells the Corinthians in this passage that his teaching on marriage came directly from the Lord. He speaks specifically to the wife that she shouldn't leave her husband. Paul said 'leave' here because in that time she couldn't legally initiate the divorce unless under certain circumstances and then she had to get a court to compel the man to do it.
If the wife did leave, according to Paul's commands from the Lord, she should seek to be reunited to her husband. However, for the man, he is simply commanded not to divorce his wife. (I Corinthians 7:10-11).
Then the apostle goes on to add some commands which he didn't hear specifically from the mouth of the Lord, but because he was an apostle of Christ he had the Spirit of God who taught through his writings what God would have him say.
In verses 12-17 Paul tells the Corinthians that if a believing man or woman is married to an unbeliever who consents to live with them then they should not divorce. However, if the unbeliever chooses to leave then the believer is not under bondage in that case. (15). Presumably they are free to see the marriage as ended.
So we see in both Jesus' teaching and Paul's writings that the marriage bond is broken only by death, by adultery or by an unbeliever's leaving. Any time the bond is severed in any of those ways, the believer is free to remarry another. Throughout Scripture, whenever a legitimate divorce occurs remarriage is assumed. So if divorce is permitted, so is remarriage.
In wrapping up the teaching on marriage and divorce in Scripture I want to let those who have been divorced know that this is not meant to add to your pain and guilt. This is really meant to talk to those who are currently married, especially those whose marriage may be having problems and say to them to hang in there. Divorce may seem to be your only option, but with God's help, there is always hope for your future with your spouse.
For those who have already been divorced but have not remarried and there is still a possibility of a reconciliation, then God would tell you to make every attempt to make it happen. Of course, it takes two to reconcile, so if your former spouse is unwilling then you can only do so much. However, do all that you can do.
For the couples to whom re-marriage to a former spouse is now beyond hope, such as one or both spouses having remarried, then God forgives sins and will give you strength to make it in the marriage you are now in if you but ask Him. Try to learn from what went wrong and seek to make your new marriage centered on God and His Word.
Marriage, at its best, is a beautiful picture of the relationship that Christ has with His Church, the Body of Christ. Paul told us in Ephesians 5:25 that our Lord loved it so much that He was willing to die for it.
May all you who are married seek to preserve the beauty of that picture by being diligent in your marriage relationships. You can begin by taking the word divorce out of your marital vocabularies. And let all of us, as members of the Body of Christ, pray for those who are husband and wife that they may persevere until death do them part. God hates divorce. Let us all hate it as much as He does.
© 2021 Jeff Shirley