31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Jesus continues His message to the people by correcting the misunderstandings and misapplications of the Law by Israel’s religious leaders (the Pharisees in particular) and their followers. The Lord did not change or annul what Moses had permitted but revealed its true purpose and meaning. Once again, the central theme of Christ pointing the people to Himself by trying to get them to stop relying on the Law and instead trust in Him still flows in these two verses. Jesus continued demonstrating that all people would be lost even over one sin without Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The Law could not save but only point people to Christ by exposing their inner sinfulness. The Pharisees weren’t following the Law correctly (see below), further exposing their hypocrisy as people who thought they had salvation through it. Therefore, Jesus used this as an opportunity to help the people see the futility of trying to save themselves apart from faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Since the last teaching in verses twenty-seven to thirty involved adultery, would that mean it is the inevitable result divorce produces (both sections are linked together)? Jesus now continued to set the standards higher by further unraveling the topic at hand. Not only can someone commit adultery mentally (in the heart) and physically (with someone in person), but it could also occur in ways many within Israel (especially the Pharisees) thought unthinkable. It could happen through a sinful breakup (divorce) that leads to one of the sexes engaging in a sexual relationship with someone else. This was the sad state of affairs, especially for the Pharisees who “ditched” many of their wives over displeasure for often ridiculously cruel and dumb reasons whenever they felt like it (they abused the allowance Moses permitted, which they broke). This abuse was extreme (it left the women of those days extremely vulnerable on their own) and couldn’t be tolerated, explaining why our Lord pushed back against and addressed it so strongly (the main reason Jesus spoke these words). And although Jewish society is quite a bit different than ours today, this continues to be a common problem in many parts of the world.
Many scholars and teachers have correctly distinguished “two schools of thought” among the Jewish leaders (and before). These two were known as the Hillel, who taught a man could divorce for any reason, and the Shammai, who believed the only grounds for breaking up with one’s spouse was misconduct from the other partner (the woman in this case). It was the former group that Jesus primarily had in mind when He spoke these words.
The beginning phrase, “It has been said,” in verse thirty-one, refers to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 where Moses permitted (not encouraged) a man to write his wife a certificate of divorce if he found indecency (or any type of misconduct not necessarily involving adultery) in her. So why did God permit Moses to allow divorce? Matthew 19:1-9 helps answer that question (see also Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18).
When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.3 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?” 4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 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’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning (since Adam and Eve before the fall). 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife (for no good reasons as the Pharisees were notorious for doing), except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Galatians 3:19 says that the Law was added for transgressions to regulate certain behaviors (and to expose the people’s inner sinfulness to help point them to their need for a Savior). So why permit a man (even if the reasons weren’t good enough due to hardness of heart) to give his wife a divorce certificate? We are all imperfect sinners, so there must be regulations for things we do that shouldn’t be done. So was the reason for Moses permitting divorce. But since we are all sinners capable (and bound in many cases) of committing any sin, there have to be procedures to handle such situations if a person refuses to do the right thing by choosing to do the wrong thing. Even if someone has justifiable grounds to divorce, it occurred because the other partner was unfaithful in some way (expressing their hardness of heart through their behavior). Since no one (both believer and unbeliever) is perfect, there are bound to be instances (even among believers) where someone messes up and sins. Since that is the case, such occurrences must be handled and regulated in specific ways. This still applies to us today because we are all imperfect human beings needing a Savior.
In our context, Jesus showed that the Scribes and Pharisees weren’t even keeping the Law they trusted for salvation. And that is where He, once again, demonstrated to them and the rest of the audience present (and us today) that we cannot be perfect. The Law could not save anyone. We cannot save ourselves through perfect obedience. No one could keep the Law perfectly and were, therefore, all lost, even over one sin absent the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The religious leaders of Israel should have caught onto this so that they could have been saved by faith through grace alone in Jesus.
In most cases, divorce constitutes sinful behavior and should always be avoided at all costs. God hates divorce because the man and woman who come together become one flesh (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:8, Ephesians 5:31) to symbolize the believer’s relationship (as the bride) to Christ (the groom). But Jesus spoke the words He did primarily to correct the Scribes and Pharisees who abused what Moses permitted.
So, is divorce always sinful? And what of Jesus’s words, “Except for sexual immorality?” What of those moments when it isn’t the wrong thing to do? Of course, anyone who loses a spouse through death can remarry (Romans 7:1-4). Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:15-16 suggests divorce is justifiable if the other partner leaves. Not only would separating not constitute sinful behavior in that instance, but remarriage would be permissible since verse fifteen says, “In such cases, the brother or sister is not enslaved.” That would constitute a case of marital unfaithfulness (regarding the person who walked out). This passage suggests that remarriage could be an option if the person who initiated the divorce remarries someone else (except for sexual immorality). However, it would be different if the person who left through initiating the separation attempted remarriage. That is not the same as someone leaving you, but you leaving them. In that case, God forbids remarriage.
10 But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife is not to leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband is not to divorce his wife.
Another example of justified divorce could involve an abuse victim, such as an innocent wife whose husband beats her. In that particular instance, the husband is all but separating from his wife by ending the relationship through physical violence and verbal abuse. Assuming he doesn’t repent and continues to plunge headlong into his sinful ways (so that reconciliation is no longer possible since one of the two parties has made up their mind to stay as they are), then separation could be not only justifiable but also non-sinful because a wise, prudent, and common sense decision had to be made to prevent further physical, mental, and spiritual harm. There is only so much that God will allow anyone to sustain, so a situation like this would fall into an application area. There are times when divorce is justifiable. Needless to say, it should always be avoided at all costs if that is indeed possible. And as we have seen, remarriage may or may not be permissible depending on some of the abovementioned circumstances.
We cannot end our discussion of Matthew 5:31-32 without stressing the fact that even in situations where divorce is sinful for the believer, it isn’t the case that (assuming the individual repents) all is lost and it’s the end of the world for those who have sinned in this manner (inexcusable and bad as it was). We are all sinners and have stumbled in many ways Romans 3:23 and James 3:2 (not to mention we all struggle with different things). David murdered and committed adultery with Bathsheba, yet he remained as Israel’s king and a man after God’s own heart. Likewise, the brother or sister who repents and gets right with the Lord should be forgiven and accepted back into the fellowship of believers among the assembly without any hypocritical and condemning judgments passed. There should be no holding of wrongs against (whether they remarried or not after sinfully divorcing) the individual(s) as long as they have repented and acknowledged their sins to the Lord. If they initiate the divorce, they must remain single or reconcile with their spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). Did they remarry when they shouldn’t have? Then, they should stay with the person they are with (we will briefly discuss that below). Did they sin? Most certainly. But if someone repents after the fact, they have gotten right with God.
True, the damage has been done. The natural (mental, emotional, and spiritual pain suffered by the hurt party, family members, and the guilty individual) and spiritual consequences (divine discipline) of past sins may linger for some time to varying degrees that only God knows. Repentance won’t necessarily stave off the “side effects” of the misconduct because they can take a while to die down (as they did with King David). But said person still has every right to confess, forget, and move on (1 John 1:9) just like any other member of the body of Christ. Refusing to do so will only result in spiritual ruin (the worst-case scenario being apostasy). No matter how bad a track record, true repentance through determination to live the rest of one’s life the best they can for the Lord will bring a joyful, peaceful, and meaningful life to the individual so involved. The best recipe for true success in this life we live in this world as God sees it is to dedicate as much of one’s time to continued spiritual growth, progress, and production until the Lord calls them home. And if all of those things be ours and increasing, they will render us neither useless nor unfruitful in our knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-8).
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,“ My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, 6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” 7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. 12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
Some cultic church groups take our Lord’s words so far as to say that a person who divorces (sinfully or not) and then remarries must break up with the person they are present with to reconcile with their previous partner. That is highly unbiblical because it is a paradoxical position that teaches double divorce! Yes, the individual may (assuming it was sinful) have sinned by wrongfully parting ways with their original mate, but once they are married to someone else, they need to remain with that person. The problem with teaching double divorce is that it encourages rather than discourages the sin. This belief stems from a poor and incorrect understanding of what the Bible has to say about the matter of marriage relationships.
On the other hand, those brothers and sisters who don’t repent of their past or present behavior (they refuse to see anything wrong with their past and present conduct, so they don’t acknowledge their sins to God and continue to live in them) must be excluded from the fellowship so that the lesson may sink in to bring them to repentance (1 Corinthians 5). And as our passage below shows, there is also the danger of others falling under the said influence. If they are unwilling to change, then only prayer in the hope of divine intervention is all there is left for the rest of the assembly to do.