Jesus has some noticeably clear instructions on marriage and divorce. This is the short version in the Jesus Manifesto (Matthew 5-7). Matthew gives more detail in Matthew 19. It might be useful to consider them both together.
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.
So here is the longer version from Matthew 19. It seems to me that the religious elites were preoccupied with the grounds for divorce quizzing Jesus about the institution of marriage.
When Jesus had finished saying these things, he departed from Galilee and went to the region of Judea across the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees [religious elites] approached him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?”
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that he who created them in the beginning made them male and female, and he also said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined 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 him, “did Moses command us to give divorce papers and to send her away?”
He told them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts, but it was not like that from the beginning. I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another commits adultery.”
His disciples said to him, “If the relationship of a man with his wife is like this, it’s better not to marry.”
He responded, “Not everyone can accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, there are eunuchs who were made by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept it should accept it.
Their question was so framed as to draw Jesus on what he considered to be legitimate grounds for divorce. For what cause might a man divorce his wife? For one cause or several causes or any cause?
Jesus’ reply was not a reply. He declined to answer their question. Instead, he asked a counter-question about their reading of Scripture.
Instead of going back to Deuteronomy, Jesus went back to Genesis. What God did when He established the first marriage teaches us positively what He had in mind for a man and a woman. If we build a marriage after God’s ideal pattern, we will not have to worry about divorce laws.
This biblical definition implies that marriage is both exclusive (‘a man … his wife’) and permanent (‘cleave’ or ‘be joined’ to his wife). It is these two aspects of marriage which Jesus selects for emphasis in his comments which follow.
- ‘So, they are no longer two but one flesh,’
- ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’
- Marriage, according to our Master’s exposition of its origins, is a divine institution by which God makes permanently one two people who decisively and publicly leave their parents in order to form a new unit of society and then ‘become one flesh’.
The religious elites called Moses’ provision for divorce a command; Jesus called it a concession to the hardness of human hearts. That is an enormous difference.
The elites responded to Jesus’ exposition of the institution of marriage and its permanence by asking: ‘Why then did Moses’s command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ Jesus’ quotation of scribal teaching in the Jesus Manifesto was similar: ‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce”.’
Both these were garbled versions of the Mosaic provision, typical of the elite’s disregard for what Scripture said and implied. They laid their emphasis on the giving of a divorce certificate, as if this were the most important part of the Mosaic provision, and then referred to both the certificate and the divorce as ‘commands’ of Moses.
How, then, did Jesus respond to the Pharisees’ question about the regulation of Moses? He attributed it to the hardness of people’s hearts. In so doing he did not deny that the regulation was from God. He implied, however, that it was not a divine instruction, but only a divine concession to human weakness. It was for this reason that ‘Moses allowed you to divorce …’, he said. But then he immediately referred again to the original purpose of God, saying: ‘But from the beginning it was not so.’ Thus, even the divine concession was in principle inconsistent with the divine institution.
What, then, did Jesus teach? N. B. Stonehouse offers a good paraphrase of the first part of the antithesis in the Jesus Manifesto:
‘You have heard of the appeal of Jewish teachers to Deuteronomy 24:1 in the interest of substantiating a policy which permits husbands freely at their own pleasure to divorce their wives — simply by providing them with a duly attested document of the transaction.’ ‘But I say to you,’ Jesus continued, that such irresponsible behavior on the part of a husband will lead him and his wife and their second partners into unions which are not marriage but adultery.
To this general principle there is one exception. The only situation in which divorce and remarriage are possible without breaking the seventh commandment is when it has already been broken by some serious sexual sin.
- In this case, and in this case only, Jesus seems to have taught that divorce was permissible, or at least that it could be obtained without the innocent party contracting the further stigma of adultery.
- The modern tendency of Western countries to frame legislation for divorce based on the ‘irretrievable breakdown’ or ‘death’ of a marriage than of a ‘matrimonial offence’ may make for better and juster law; it cannot be said to be compatible with the teaching of Jesus.’