Although this series has been an overview of the Sermon on the Mount as it relates to the kingdom of God, there are some specific lines in Jesus’s message that provoke more than a little concern. One of them is his comment about divorce. There was no way to talk about that without spending an entire weekend (at least) on the subject and that would have sidetracked the main point of this particular series.
The stickler verse is this:
“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’? But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5:31–32) Seems obvious, right? But actually, Bible scholars are all over the map on this issue of divorce and remarriage. I think if we read some key passages in context, it makes a lot more sense. There’s no way you can walk through this minefield without making somebody mad. I’ve been accused of being too soft on this by some and too dogmatic by others.
One of the most oft-stated points made by conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists is this: God hates divorce. In a well-quoted passage in Malachi 2, it reads: “I hate divorce,” says the Lord God of Israel… “ Malachi 2:16a. Please notice He didn’t say He hated divorced people. You might say to your kids, “I hate lying! I don’t like it when you lie to me!” But that doesn’t mean you hate your kids, it simply means you hate lying.
Now let me give you a big shocker you never hear preachers talk about: God Himself is divorced. At a point in Israel’s history, He became so angry with Israel’s unfaithfulness to Him, with their lusting after other lovers, other gods, other attractions to give themselves to, that He tells Jeremiah, “I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries…” Jeremiah 3:8a.
Are those scriptures at odds with each other?
Let’s start from the beginning. First, divorce and permission to remarry was not an issue under the Law of Moses—they were assumed one and the same. It reads in Deuteronomy 24: “Suppose a man marries a woman but later discovers something about her that is shameful. So he writes her a letter (or certificate) of divorce, gives it to her, and sends her away. If she then leaves and marries another man and the second husband also divorces her or dies, the former husband may not marry her again, for she has been defiled. Deuteronomy 24:1-4a (New Living Translation).
A letter of divorce meant that the marriage was a complete dissolution and remarriage was a part of the package. It was assumed there would be a remarriage. There was no forbidding of remarriage except in only one case: after marrying a second husband, a woman could not remarry her first husband if she divorced again (Uh, that’s not a problem for most divorced couples I know…). That was the only law against remarriage for divorced people. So when Paul, in a controversial passage in Romans 7, talks about a woman being bound to her husband as long as he lived, that she was not released unless he died, he was well aware of the Mosaic Law. As a matter of fact, he writes “I am speaking to those who know the law...” He was not talking about the reality of legal divorce and remarriage—he’s talking about a woman who is married and then marries another man while still married to the first. No one in Israel would call a legally divorced, remarried man or woman an adulterer; that was unheard of.
Now the tricky issue under Mosaic Law was defining the cause for divorce—ambiguously described as the wife “having found no favor in his eyes,” because he found “something unclean about her.” The interpretation of unclean could be anything from her being a bad housekeeper, to talking too loudly in her house, to the husband just finding someone prettier. This loose interpretation is the reason Jesus is cornered by some Pharisees in Matthew 19 and posed with the question “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?”
Remember, the question is not whether they can remarry; that’s not the issue--but on what grounds can they legally divorce? In Jesus’s time there were two debating schools of thought: one camp centered around Rabbi Hillel (who lived about a hundred years before Christ). He said you could divorce for any cause.
The other school was Rabbi Shammai who said only for fornication. This was a hotly debated topic...and divorce was rampant in Palestine. Remember the woman at the well who had been married five times? She was not the exception of that culture. He says to her “Go get your husband.” She says, “I don’t have one” and He prophetically responds with “Correct! Matter of fact, you’ve had five husbands and you’re not married to the guy you’re shacking up with now.” He seemed to recognized the legality of the fact that she had been married to five husbands and was now with a man who was not her husband.
When Matthew records this in chapter 5, he puts it in a context that gives us the key to understanding this. In Matthew 5 (and please read the whole chapter to get this), Jesus compares the Law of Moses to a higher calling: life in Him and the “Now-and-Not-Yet Kingdom-lifestyle”. Remember, Jesus said He didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
He was raising the stakes of what it meant to live under a Law of Love. Jesus was speaking in a style I call comparative hyperbole. He says “You have heard that it was said…” . . . “But I say…” (Matthew 5:21 to 43). He then uses a rhetorical overstatement to make his point in comparison to the Law of Moses—which was considered the standard for righteousness. He raises what real holiness would look like—it had more to do with heart motives than behaviors.
Again, Jesus said He didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it—and the law plainly allowed for divorce and remarriage. Let’s put one other thing into this mix: for any of you who have looked at divorced and remarried people as some second-class citizens of the Kingdom, I can only hope that you have never called anyone a jerk, because you’re guilty of hell, according to Jesus just a few verses earlier in Matthew 5. Someone cuts you off the expressway and you think they’re a dipstick, dust off your Triptik to hell. Or if you’ve ever been angry with a relative, you’ve just committed murder. Or I certainly hope I that you’ve never even thought about someone in a sexual way—you’ve already committed adultery. And adulterers and murderers are put to death under the laws of Moses. Or if for any reason you’ve lusted after something, make sure you pluck your right eye out. Or if you ever have to go to court and get slapped with a lawsuit, please give them a lot more money than they sue you for.
That’s the context that Jesus speaks on divorce here.
In those passages, Jesus is raising the stakes for the ideal marriage. Again, catch the overdriven language of what He’s saying: call somebody a jerk, you go to hell. Divorce your wife, you make her and yourself commit adultery. He ends this chapter with “Be perfect, just like your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Quick reality check: by a show of hands, how many of you blog-readers are perfect? Thank you. That is why we need Jesus Christ. Jesus is saying: those who live in perfect love will never divorce. And…they will never call someone a fool, they will never even glance at someone lustfully, they will never say “yes” when they’re not sure, and they will always love their enemies. They will always be perfect.
“Dave, you’re being sarcastic; are you saying don’t pay any attention to this stuff?—it’s not possible to live like that so don’t even mess with it?” Of course not. These are the words of God in the flesh. I’d better listen to them. I must abide in Jesus to walk in love. But with the understanding that if I’m honest I will more than likely fail, and will once again fall upon the grace of the Lord Jesus. If He is not able to forgive, then I am not able to live. That’s the reality.
Jesus is not just placing restrictions on people; Jesus takes us higher to the perfect law of love. Instead of asking “What’s the bottom line for divorce?” we should be asking “What’s the real power and significance of marriage?”
God designed marriage to be the most intimate human relationship possible. You’ve probably heard Christian teachers say, and I have said it myself, that “divorce is not in my vocabulary.” But let’s get real. The truth is, none of us went to the altar with divorce in our minds; that was an issue for other people who were “not in love like us.”
I’ve written these words before, but “God designed marriage to be the most intimate friendship imaginable. When the New Testament speaks of a man cleaving to his wife, it’s based on the same Greek word used for glue. It is the bringing together of two substances to make a new one. Jesus is saying that we need to enter this covenant with a measure of awe, a reverent fear and responsibility to God. The reason why we get married with clergy represented is because we are witnessing before God and asking Him to join us together and the heavyweight words that He speaks are ‘If I join you together, then don’t let any mere mortal tear you asunder’.”
The Apostle Paul writes: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:31-32.
Did you read between the lines there?—marriage has an incredible mission. It becomes the visible representation of the kind of intimacy and love Jesus desires for His bride—the Church. Marriage is the only thing on the planet that comes close to picturing the power, beauty and intimacy of God’s covenant with His followers. Get this and you’ll never see it the same again: Marriage is bigger than the personal fulfillment it should bring to each other. It has a task and a vision beyond that.
The world is looking for models of love and longevity and integrity. It is important to me to make sure my marriage is healthy because many people would be affected by its failure: not just me, not just my wife, not just my kids. And it’s not just so it looks good—that’s hypocritical. But whether it is good.
When you have invested your life in the Kingdom of God, when Jesus becomes the center of your life, everything takes on a higher significance. If your marriage doesn’t have a vision bigger than itself, you’re bound for trouble. That is why the Bible says it’s so critical that we marry other passionate followers of Jesus, that we’re not yoked with unbelievers. It’s saying: If you love Jesus, marry someone else who loves Him more than you do and is completely surrendered to Him. Otherwise there is no common vision other that trying to make each other happy. That’s not big enough to last.
The problem is: we live in a world of fallen creatures, with painful histories and emotional baggage, and trickiest of all, free will. But remember: God’s grace is very wide. I only know of one unforgivable sin, and this one isn’t it. We are the “not-yet-together” people. By faith we receive the catalytic and dynamic power of God, but we’re transparent about that process.