Marriage - Divorce - Remarriage

Narrative #5

Matthew 19 contains key information about Jesus' teaching concerning marriage and divorce. This study tries to correct certain misunderstandings about what Jesus is actually saying about who is guilty or innocent in these situations.
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Jesus' ministry in the northern part of the country near His hometown in Galilee is complete and He prepares to go up to Jerusalem. This narrative divides itself into two basic sections: the events taking place while on route to the city and the events taking place in and around the temple in Jerusalem. This narrative shows Jesus' reaction to people and their reaction to Him. Note that the general hostility and doubt seen in the north is even more evident among the leaders as Jesus enters the city and temple.

Road to Jerusalem

Decent to Jerusalem

1When Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilee and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; 2and large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there.
- Matthew 19:1-2

Note that His healing ministry to the masses continues as He approaches the city.

Confrontation with the Pharisees

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?"
- Matthew 19:3

Matthew says that this was a test, a test to see which side Jesus favored in the debate about the subject of divorce. The test was as follows. At that time there were two interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

1When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, 2and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man's wife, 3and if the latter husband turns against 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 husband dies who took her to be his wife, 4then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.
  • Rabbi Shammai – This teacher said that no reason other than shameful (sexual) conduct was grounds for divorce.
  • Rabbi Hillel – This teacher said that any cause of displeasure by the husband was reason enough to divorce one's wife (at that time only men could sue for divorce, not women).

If Jesus sided with the stricter view He could be reproached for His friendly treatment of sinners (forgives prostitutes, moves among the divorced). If He sided with the more lax view, the Pharisees would side with Shammai and accuse Him of moral laxity. If He declared Himself against all divorce for any reason they would charge Him with contradicting the Law which did permit divorce.

4And He answered and said, "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? 6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate."
- Matthew 19:4-6

In responding to their questions Jesus begins by revealing the error in their thinking that God's will concerning marriage was fully contained in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The Pharisees saw marriage and its dissolution in terms of law. They were lawyers and so they asked, "Is it lawful?" Jesus points them to the original teaching concerning marriage:

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
- Genesis 2:24

God created marriage as the perfect union for man. Its physical and emotional bonds were stronger than the paternal ones. That to dissolve such a bond was to go against what God had done (not that it was impossible to do so, just that it was sinful to do so).

Having established the basis, Jesus now is in a position to put into context their next question.

7They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?" 8He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.
- Matthew 19:7-8

The Pharisees assumed that Moses' "commands" somehow promoted divorce, and their understanding of the entire issue was based on this premise. The reality of the matter was that Moses never changed the original teaching or purpose of marriage as it was described in Genesis 2:24. He added legislation that mitigated (tried to reduce) the evil and hardship resulting from divorce among his people.

Genesis 2:24 was given when Adam and Eve were without sin. After sin came into the world there also came a degradation of marriage and family from the ideal that had been set forth in the Garden with them. In answer to this God established the Law as a guide and tutor until Jesus came to save. The legislation concerning divorce was not a change in the principle upon which marriage was based, but rather additional instructions to help deal with the failed marriages that were bound to occur because of sinfulness. Jesus expresses this idea in verse eight - divorce was failure/sin and this law was given to deal with it. After the sin of Adam, divorce was to be a fact of life and Deuteronomy 24 dealt with it.

And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.
- Matthew 19:9

The common practice among Jews, especially Pharisees, was to find some pretext to send away their wives in order to marry someone else, and then claim innocence based on Deuteronomy 24:1-4. They fulfilled the Law by giving their wives a proper bill of divorce and did not re-claim her later on.

Jesus reveals their hypocrisy by applying the principle of Genesis 2:24 as the moral indicator to their actions, not just a twisted view of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. In effect, He says, "If you want to judge how lawful you are, compare your actions to a combined view of Genesis 2 and Deuteronomy 24."

Sending away the one to whom you are joined without proper cause (Numbers 5:12; Deuteronomy 22:13; Deuteronomy 24:1-4 all describe sexual sin as a proper cause, Jesus now confirms this in Matthew 19:9) in order to marry another, this is adultery. A person can dissolve a marriage (the Law permitted this) but to do so without proper reason was adultery.

There is a debate on this verse in our day that goes like this:

1. The adultery is committed when the person marries again for a second time ("adulterous marriage"). The reason for this view is the belief that the verb in the Greek (commits adultery) is in a linear or continuous action mode (i.e. is continuing to commit adultery). In this view, the second marriage is an ongoing adulterous act. However, there is no such term in the Bible as "adulterous marriage."

This line of reasoning requires that those who have divorced without just cause and remarried must break up existing marriages and go back to their original spouses or remain celibate in order to properly repent of their sin. Without this course of action a person cannot be baptized, and those who are already baptized and in this situation must go back to an original partner or stay celibate in order to remain in the church.

2. The other position is as follows. The adultery in question is committed when the partner violates the marriage covenant. The basic meaning of the word "adultery" is to break covenant or violate a promise. In this instance it is through sexual infidelity.

It has also been shown that the verb in the Greek (commits adultery) is not necessarily linear denoting continuing action but on the contrary, according to proper translation, should be considered as "point action" or a one-time occurrence. Actually, the decision on linear or point action depends on the context. When we take these ideas together the conclusion on this verse is that when a person violates his marriage covenant through sexual infidelity he commits the sin of adultery, whether he remarries or not. This is a one-time sin. (Like stealing a car, how many counts of car theft can a person be charged with for stealing a car? Even if he keeps driving it for a month or a year…he is only charged with 1 count of stealing.)

If a person divorces in order to marry someone else without proper cause, the sin of adultery is committed in violating or breaking his original marriage covenant, not in the contracting of the second marriage. This thinking is not being "soft" on divorce. This line of reasoning upholds the principle of fidelity in marriage, condemns any violation of the marriage covenant as adultery but does not consider remarriage as the adultery. After all, Jesus called them marriages, not "adulterous marriages." Repentance from this perspective means recognition of the violation and a commitment to fidelity in the situation one finds oneself in now.

The disciples said to Him, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry."
- Matthew 19:10

The disciples, influenced by the lax divorce laws of their day, are dismayed. If the only reason one had of discharging our wives is her fornication (a remote possibility) then it is probably better not to marry, they say. How far away they are from God's original ideal of a husband and wife as partners in marriage, being transparent and sharing in all areas of life.

But He said to them, "Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given.
- Matthew 19:11

Jesus tells them that not everyone can accept the saying, "... it is better not to marry." They assume celibacy is the way to go if one is to remain faithful, but Jesus tells them not everyone can manage this.

For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it."
- Matthew 19:12

Jesus reviews the cases where celibacy occurs:

  • Some are genetically so, born without sexual desires.
  • Some were made that way, castrated.
  • Some exercise self-control in order to serve in the kingdom exclusively (the ability to do so, however, is a gift from God, I Corinthians 7:7).

Jesus also shows that celibacy is not compulsory since the Apostles were all married, and Paul encourages people to marry (I Corinthians 7:8-9). Only those who are able to live celibate lives should do so, the rest the people should marry in order to satisfy their normal human sexual needs.


In Matthew 19 Jesus combines Genesis 2 and Deuteronomy 24 to present the complete will of God concerning marriage and divorce.

  1. Marriage comes from God and the marriage bond is sacred and not to be broken by man (Genesis 2).
  2. If marriage is dissolved for improper cause (Deuteronomy 24, other than sexual immorality) and one remarries, they commit the sin of adultery. Why is this adultery? Because violation of the covenant of marriage in any way (including sexual immorality) is adultery. You are not allowed to break apart what God has put together. To break a marriage covenant and to marry another is adultery.

Comparative Passages

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.
- Matthew 5:32

This same issue is addressed in an earlier part of Matthew by Jesus, except in this passage He includes Exodus 20:14 (You shall not commit adultery). The commandment forbidding adultery, as well as Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which was the legislation on divorce in relationship to what God wanted in marriage. This passage in His Sermon on the Mount is describing the conduct and character of those within the kingdom.

The difference between this section and the one in Matthew 19 is that here Jesus describes the nature of the trespass or offense against the innocent spouse and that person's future relationships.

The Jews felt that all obligations to their spouses were over if they obtained a legal document of divorce. They believed that in providing this legal formality, their conscience in the matter was clear.

Jesus demonstrates that the one who divorced without proper cause in that day and time caused their innocent partners shame. In Matthew 19 He talks about the guilty party, in Matthew 5 He talks about the innocent party.

So here we have to examine grammar again in order to get the exact meaning. The Greek word "... makes her commit adultery..." should be translated in the passive tense in order to bring out what Jesus is saying about a man who divorces his innocent wife. It would be clearer in the passive tense to say that a man who puts away his innocent wife "... stigmatizes her as an adulterous woman." If we use the active tense the innocent wife becomes guilty of adultery; if we use the passive tense she is the victim of adultery, which makes more sense in context.

It is not that this woman did anything wrong, but by virtue of her dismissal she is now seen as being adulterous by her society. This happens to her because the only good reason for her being put away in the first place was sexual immorality. If she was innocent and divorced anyways she would be considered as such, and so would anyone who would legally marry her in the future. For people who were righteous and moral, a divorced woman was automatically considered to be adulterous. It was this shameful condition that Jesus is referring to here, falsely created by a wrongful divorce.

In translating we can use the active or passive tense, but in using the active tense we heap more guilt and suffering on the innocent party; this is poor Bible study and does not square with the gospel. To say that innocent partners are guilty, or automatically forced into celibacy or adultery, is not in keeping with Jesus' other teachings on grace and forgiveness.

Jesus, in this passage, wants to draw out the extent of the sin and the responsibility of the one who was sending away his wife without cause.

In Matthew 5:32 He shows:

  • The offense is against his partner in causing her public shame.
  • The offence will be against her future husband in causing him public shame.

In the Matthew 19 passage He shows:

  • The hypocrisy of using only Deuteronomy 24 to judge the morality of their actions without considering Genesis 2:25.
  • The only legitimate cause for divorce according to the Law was fornication, and to put away a partner for lessor reasons in order to marry another was wrong… was adultery!
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.
- Luke 16:18

Jesus is not legislating on divorce or remarriage. He has already explained in Matthew 5 and 19 that:

  1. Marriage is for life.
  2. Sexual sin is the only legitimate cause for divorce provided by the Law (the Apostle Paul will add to this, but Jesus is referring to what they were dealing with at the time).
  3. To divorce without this cause does 2 things:
    1. Makes one guilty of adultery.
    2. Makes one guilty of bringing shame on the innocent party and their future partners.

In Luke 16:28 Jesus hurls an accusation against the Pharisees who were scoffing at Him, by charging them with adultery in their careless divorcing and remarrying for any reason. This was a claim they were guilty of. If Jesus was explaining the rules for marriage, divorce and remarriage here He would have been contradicting the Law and His own teaching elsewhere. What He is reinforcing, however, is that covenant breaking (putting away) is what constitutes adultery. He is talking to the Pharisees!

1Getting up, He went from there to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan; crowds gathered around Him again, and, according to His custom, He once more began to teach them.

2Some Pharisees came up to Jesus, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce a wife. 3And He answered and said to them, "What did Moses command you?" 4They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away." 5But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. 7For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, 8and the two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate."

10In the house the disciples began questioning Him about this again. 11And He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; 12and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.
- Mark 10:1-12

One other passage that deals with this subject is in Mark 10:1-12. It covers the same ground as the other passages but includes the mention of a wife putting away her husband; an example probably included for Mark's Gentile readers since a woman initiating a divorce would not be possible in Jewish society.

As for the other passages in the New Testament that deal with the issue of marriage, divorce and remarriage, Paul the Apostle devotes an entire chapter to this topic in his first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter seven. I will not include that material in this book, but if you are interested in reading more on this topic, I discuss it in chapter four of my book, "l Corinthians for Beginners."

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