When is It Okay to Divorce?

Divorce, while a very sensitive subject, is not a difficult one when it comes to the Bible.  This post (and its subsequent ones) are written to help us understand the biblical view of marriage and divorce.  So in week one, we will first seek to understand what Jesus was saying in Matthew 5.31-32 about sexual immorality and divorce, aka the reason for divorce.  Next week, we will move to Matthew 19.4-6 about the intent of marriage, aka the reason for devotion.  And in two weeks, we will look at what Paul wrote about when divorce is okay in 1 Corinthians 7.10-16, aka the reason to desist.

As we look at why Jesus brought up divorce we need to recognize that this goes back once again to the Pharisees and the Scribes.  “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matt 5.16, ESV).  The Scribes and Pharisees looked back on the Law of Moses and showed that he only required a writ of divorce and so, much like today’s America there was a no-fault idea of divorce.  As long as the paperwork was filed you’re good to go.  Just do it lawfully.  That was not the intent of marriage whatsoever.

But it also has to do with Matthew 5.17.  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them,” (ESV).  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law.  He is taking us back to the original intent of the Law and clarifying any and all mistakes that have sense come forward through the traditions of man.


So he began with anger, moved to lust, and now in an easy transition moved to divorce.

It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.”  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery, (Matt 5.31-32, ESV).

Jesus brought up this same argument in Matthew 19.  I just want to go to the parallel verses at this point; we will look at the reason for devotion next week.  In very similar, even parallel verses, Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery,” (Matt 19.8-9, ESV).  To which the disciples responded, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry,” (Matthew 19.10, ESV). In other words, they got the picture of what Jesus was painting.  It was a very hard saying to the point that the disciples figured it was better to remain single than be married.  So just by their reaction, we must see that Jesus wasn’t simply talking about if the wife or husband had an affair you can get rid of them.  That would seem logical and fair.  Jesus wasn’t intending to say that.

So what was Jesus getting at?  Jesus pointed back in both Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 to Deuteronomy 24.  Read the verses with me:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then 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 of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates 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 man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away may not taker her against to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD.  And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance, (vv. 1-4, ESV).

These are the very verses that Jesus pointed back to.  “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce,’” (Matt 5.31, ESV).  “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” (Matt 19.8, ESV).  This is the passage that speaks of Moses allowing a divorce if and when a certificate is given.  So this is clearly where Jesus is coming from.

The only way that a man could divorce his wife, as Jesus is reiterating is if she was found indecent.  That’s a euphemism.  It’s used throughout the Old Testament, but we normally see it as nakedness.  Such as with Noah after getting drunk or the Levitical code of uncovering one’s nakedness.  It simply means something sexually immoral happening.  This is the only reason according to the Old Testament that you can get a divorce.

However, we need to understand more than just this part of it.  It goes deeper than what we want to see on the surface.  To illustrate what Jesus was talking about, I want us to look to two examples.  One is Joseph and the other is Hosea.

We, in today’s world, are for the most part about as far away from the ancient Eastern idea of marriage as we can be.  We tend to date, get engaged, and then get married.  Back in these times, brides were picked for their husbands, brides whom were believed to be good matches.  There was no dating, and really no courting.  It went straight to betrothal.  However, betrothal is not what we consider engagement.  Betrothal was marriage without the “benefits” of marriage.  The couple was considered to be married without actually being married.  This is the marriage of Deuteronomy 24 and this was the marriage that Jesus talks about in Matthew 5 and 19.

Jesus used the word sexual immorality in both contexts, using the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word indecency.  What Jesus did not say is, “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of adultery, makes her commit adultery.”  He used a completely different word there.  If Christ meant adultery he would have used the word adultery, but He didn’t use the word because He didn’t mean the word.  Jesus is referring to that which happened before or during the betrothal state.  He didn’t use the word, moichao which means adultery, but rather porneia which is fornication, generally considered pre-marital sexual immorality.

So let me give an illustration of what I mean.  This illustration would hit close to home for Jesus.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly,” (Matt 1.18-19, ESV).

Joseph would have been doing all things according to Deuteronomy 24.  Mary was found to be with child though the marriage had not been consummated, thus in Joseph’s eyes, she was indecent.  She had committed porneia.  Thankfully, Joseph had a dream and an angel explained what was going on.

Hosea, however was married.  He was married to Gomer, a prostitute.  She was a prostitute before they got married and thus he knew she was indecent, but married her anyway because that was God’s orders.  At which point she left him and went back to prostitution.  However, what we don’t see is Hosea divorcing Gomer, but rather going back and redeeming her.

Marriage is to be that way.  Jesus was raising the bar when it came to marriage.  In today’s era we would say, you’ve got every chance to call off the engagement, but once you’re married there is absolutely no turning back.  Thus both men and women need to be extremely careful about whom it is they marry.

This is just the first installment of three, and I will dive a bit deeper when it comes to abuse, because that is always a factor and an issue.  For now, let me just say that one is not called to stay in a home/area where abuse occurs.  In fact, I would encourage one to get out of there as soon as one can.

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