Jesus and Divorce – Matthew 5:31-32

This is the third of Jesus’s six comments on legal matters. The first two (murder and adultery) took a command from the Decalogue and extended it to the thoughts and motivations which lay behind the particular sinful act. So, “do not murder” becomes “control your angry thoughts” and “do not commit adultery” becomes “control you lustful thoughts.” With his comments on divorce, Jesus enters into a rabbinic discussion of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the meaning of the “indecent thing” in 24:1. He will then deal with making (and breaking) oaths (5:33-37).

As Scot McKnight points out, the reason for Jesus’s “utter horror” about divorce is his understanding of love and marriage based on the Hebrew Bible (Sermon, 95). Marriage is grounded in the creation of man and woman. Humans were designed by God marry and create families. There are examples of men and women enjoying live and marriage in the wisdom literature. In Ecclesiastes 9:9 the writer tells his readers to “enjoy life with your wife whim you love.” The Song of Solomon celebrates the joy of marriage in a way that makes some readers blush.

Jesus deals with divorce by grounding the idea of marriage in the creation. Humans were designed to enter into lifelong relationships, spiritual unions which create families and foster a community where children are raised. He alludes to the creation of humans as male and female (Gen 1:27) and quotes Genesis 2:24 as support for marriage.  In the context of Genesis humans were designed to work and they were designed to build communities around the ideal family. This is the way things work best, although in the present world they are corrupted by sin.

Since marriage is embedded in creation itself, it is foolish to try to live in another way. (A related question is the issue of a person choosing not to marry at all. It is not my point here to say the only way someone can be happy and wise is to marry, see below on Matthew 19). People often choose to do the less-than-ideal thing and often indulge in foolishness with wild abandon!

With respect to the application of this teaching, the ideal for humans is a life-long marriage, but sin corrupts everything and sometimes things happen which prevent us from reaching that ideal.

Jesus intended divorce to be a rarity, but the fact he teaches on the issue indicates he knew it would happen. Like the wisdom tradition, he recognizes that God has designed humans to have marriage relationships, but he also recognizes human frailty (hard-heartedness) results in a breakdown of what God has intended.  No one goes into a marriage expecting it to fail, but sometimes it does.  A person experiencing marriage problems ought to be treated with grace and acceptance, in the same way we might accept a person who is an alcoholic as we help them to deal with their problem.

In a contemporary context, there are far more things breaking down marriages than adultery. If there is any abuse of either the wife or the children, the wife should separate for the safety of herself and children. Divorce and remarriage is one of those things which is “not the way God created us to be” and our sinful world makes it very difficult to live our lives fully to the ideal to which we have been create.

Jesus gives a similar teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-12. In response to a question from a group of Pharisees Jesus draws attention to the creation story and the original intention of marriage. If God’s intention was for a marriage to continue “until death do us part,” then the Pharisees ask why Moses permitted divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus repeats what he said in the Sermon on the Mount but adds the observation Moses added the possibility of divorce because the human heart is hard (19:8).

This might have surprised the disciples, who wonder if it is better not to marry (v. 10). Jesus responds to this with one of the more enigmatic sayings in Matthew” there are some people who are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (v. 11-12). Not all can accept this voluntary celibacy, but those who can, Jesus says, should accept it.

With respect to modern application, this verse has been used far beyond Jesus’s original intent to defend traditional marriage or to prevent a woman from leaving an abusive marriage. In order to understand Jesus, we need to learn something about the state of marriage and divorce in Second Temple Judaism, read his brief comments in that context before drawing reasonable application to contemporary practice.

Historically, has the church missed the point on marriage and divorce? Is divorce permitted for a Christian? How can contemporary Christianity help develop a biblical view of marriage and reach out to people who have experienced the pain of divorce?

29 thoughts on “Jesus and Divorce – Matthew 5:31-32

  1. One wonders about the relationship (if any) between the command “Do not commit adultery”, and the metaphors of God’s chosen people being God’s “wife” (in the OT) and Jesus as the “Bridegroom” and the Church as the “Bride” (in the N.T.)

    It would be interesting to untangle this theological thread in light of this commandment.

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    • that is what my friend Colin Hamer tried to do in his dissertation (entitled Marital Imagery in the Bible: An Exploration of Genesis 2:24 and its Significance for the Understanding of New Testament Divorce and Remarriage Teaching) and a more popular level book. I reviewed the shorter book here:

      https://readingacts.com/2018/05/04/book-review-colin-hamer-the-bridegroom-messiah/

      and this is his website:

      http://colinhamer.com/

      From my perspective, the reason the metaphor of an adulterous wife works so well is the high view of marriage (and aversion to adultery) in the Hebrew Bible.

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      • I agree with you that this is a “key” in understanding the unity and cohesiveness of the OT and NT. I must confess that I posed the above comment to “solicit” your response (my bad) !!

        In this regard, I think Romans 7:2 is a “key” to understanding the unity of the OT and NT and the “one-flesh union” of God and the Church, compared by Paul to Adam (Jesus) and Eve (Church)

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  2. Murder and adultery play with the mind. They begin to control your thoughts and your decisions, which are controlled by evil. Tying that into marriage, marriage is grounded between men and women. We were created to love and not hate. We were created and designed by the Maker to marry and to create families and offspring. The book of Song of Solomon, is based on the benefits and riches of marriage and all the joys that it will bring. “Humans were designed to enter into lifelong relationships, spiritual unions which create families and foster a community where children are raised. Humans were constructed to work and build a community around a strong family, but sin has corrupted that.
    God created humans to marry but he also notices that humans fall to hard-heartedness which leads to breakdowns and stumbling down negative paths. God did not create divorce and remarriage, it is not what God intended it to be. Rather it is our sinful nature coming into action. In order to completely understand Jesus, we should strive to know and learn something about the state of marriage and how divorce works in all. Divorce happens because the human heart becomes hard.

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    • How would you explain this to someone who believes that do not believe in God’s law and believe their behavior is natural but not evil. For believers like ourselves, sees the fact that we are born into sin, therefore when we do not work by the spirit allows us to follow, then our flesh can easily take over. If I look at a woman with the intent of sexual desires than I am just as bad as fornicating with her. The thought process of sin is indeed natural, but at the same time we may think of things and never do them. This is the ideal approach a person who does not believe. Therefore, I would address the fact that whatever we think about, can indeed come true. The reason being that’s the way our mind works. It’s like a machine, if you wine it to go right, it will go right. Then I would apply scripture to the mix, Galatians 5:16-22 “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” (ESV,2010) This scripture speaks on the way mind works if you apply in mind to do and think whatever seed you plant within.

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  3. I believe that it is important to point out that Jesus knew divorce would happen. Jesus understood that there was sin in the world and that man was fallen. Jesus knew that there would be a man or woman who would be unfaithful to their spouse many times without repentance. Divorce is for these situations, which is rare. There are marriages that are able to be healed after a case of infidelity. However, there are marriages in which one spouse is constantly unfaithful and does not wish to repent from these actions. Divorce is then designed to protect the other spouse. It is important for the modern church to be able to help those who are suffering and are thinking about divorce. Christian’s should encourage spouses to forgive their spouses from the painful things that they have done. I have seen marriages that were able to forgive and surpass the pain of infidelity. It is important to model the teachings of Christ and offer encouragement in all ways possible.

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  4. I really like the way that the blog pointed out that Jesus knew that divorce would happen. He knew that our sinful selves would ruin the way that marriage was intended to be. I recently got married over the summer and before our wedding we did marriage counseling. The entire counseling was about how our marriage will not be successful and bring glory to God if God is not at the center of both of our lives and the center of our marriage. This is because we are sinful human beings that if we take our focus off of God, that focus is going to go onto ourselves causing us to work towards “glorifying” ourselves rather than God. This is when we make mistakes and sin against our spouse. Keeping God at the center of our lives not only helps us to live a life that is glorifying Him, but also helps us to prevent making mistakes such as infidelity. On the other side of it, when our spouse does cheat on the other, if the faithful spouse has God as the center of their life, they will have mercy on their spouse and forgive them for the mistakes that they have made. It allows us to look at a situation the way that Jesus would, by forgiving them, rather than in our human way of wanting to hold a grudge against that person who hurt us. Obviously, Jesus knew that our sinful selves would take over and we were going to make mistakes in our marriages. He knew that we were not going to be able to uphold marriage the way that He intended for it to be.

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  5. One of the things that stood out to me from this post was that Jesus knew that divorce would occur and, although it was intended to be a rarity, he spoke on it because he knew that our sinful nature would lead to the intention of a lifelong marriage between man and woman would become corrupted by our sinful nature. I think that the church has put importance on having God as the center of your marriage, however, it has become all too frequent that Christian couples are seeking divorce for reasons apart from sexual immorality and things of that nature. Mcknight writes on the Christian marriage and divorce, and stressed the importance that a marriage is a union blessed and established by God (p. 105). Ecclesiastes 4:12 is a perfect example of this, as it says that “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken”, and what we can take from this is that when a husband and wife are woven together, they are strong, but a marriage interwoven with Christ is that much stronger. Putting Christ at the center of your relationship will help you to stand together through the struggles of life and to defend your relationship when there are trials and tribulations.

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    • I find that specific part to be interesting to me as well. The fact that he already knew that divorce is going to happen and yet he still talks about it is intriguing. I think that the church needs to start emphasizing the importance and the joy that marriage is rather than talking about all of the negative things. Jesus puts an emphasis on the joy that marriage has. God has created marriage to be a joyful place where you are able to complement each other well. From the beginning of time, God has demanded that He is the center of all marriages, yet often this is not the case. McKnight even points out that many Christians are entering marriage with the idea that divorce is always an option to get out of it (p. 105). With Jesus putting emphasis on not getting a divorce, it shows the importance of having a healthy relationship with God being the center.

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      • I agree, with what you said about the church and how as the church we should be showing the importance on God being the center of our relationships, not only im marriages but also in every other relationship we may have; and the importance it is to show that kind of love.

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  6. I liked what you said here about how marriage is embedded in us at the beginning of time. I think that this phrase is important because it is at the beginning of time when the system failed as well in Gen. 3 when Adam and Eve are tempted in the garden and they fall into sin. I felt like this was a big theme in your blog up above is that God never wanted us to be separate from Him and also serpent from our spouses but because of sin, a wedge has been smashed down between us, God, and each other.

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    • Everything truly does relate back to sin and how we were all born into it. Jesus knowing that divorce would occur I believe that’s why he also made it clear that its not in his will for us to divorce and that even in infidelity trust can be restored through his word and working together.

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  7. I appreciate the fact that you touched on the fact that people get divorced for many different and very serious reasons other than adultery. I agree that many churches need to find a way to better respond to those facing the decision of whether or not to get divorced. It is obviously a very weighty decision and because of the way that the church often looks down on situations where divorce may be what is best for the individuals safety, it is so difficult, because they want to do whatever it takes to convince that person to not give up on marriage because it is a sin in most circumstances. I like what McKnight has to say about the steps a church should take when counseling those who are considering divorce. The step he has about mercy and righteousness being non-negotiable virtues is very important as we are called to do what God says is right, but to also have mercy on one another (McKnight 106). It is important for the church to know what their stance is on divorce, but to be cautious with their words when they are meeting with people who are dealing with the real thing, who can easily be turned away by the wrong words of someone they look up to.

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  8. The quote that was mentioned in the article “Jesus intended divorce to be a rarity, but the fact he teaches on the issue indicates he knew it would happen”. Makes me wonder was Jesus talking about this in his time to prevent it from becoming a problem in culture later on? Or was he teaching this idea because he knew that divorce would be a major social and cultural issue two thousand plus years into the future?

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    • Interesting post Charlie! I think that as the post mentioned above, Jesus wanted divorce to be rare. He did know it was going to happen though. It is crazy how much it happens in today’s world though. As you mentioned, it is a major cultural and social issue in today’s world. It is clearly something that is taught to not happen. But, why do people not see that? People don’t take marriage for real. They don’t know the real reason behind marriage. They don’t know that it is meant for a man and a woman to last a lifetime. It is a sacred bond between two people. It is a blessing.

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  9. I think the issue is not with the church but with peoples attitudes toward marriage in general. When people say “until death do us part” they are really just saying “until I fall out of love with you”. The issue with christianity is that if our religion is really as different as we claim it is then our divorce rates should be non existence except for in the area of unfaithfulness. But the sad reality is that our rates of divorce are absolutely no different. The solution should be to prepare couples for the realities of marriage. So many get married because of a feeling rather than understanding that it is a choice and a commitment. Not just to the other spouse but to God as well. There are countless examples throughout the Bible about how sacred marriage is to God. The issue is that people don’t value it near as much as God.

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  10. Divorce is often overlooked in our current day in age because it’s almost okay to do whatever we want with marriage now with affairs, or living together while unmarried. Jesus speaks very strongly about how two people, a man and a woman are to come together, leave their parents and become one flesh; and submitting to each other. Divorce is one of the “greatest” sins because for example, Jesus is the groom and we, the church, are the bride and one day at the wedding supper of the Lamb we will be united with Jesus Christ, married in a sense to Him for eternity. The church is the bride, the woman in white, marriage on earth is a physical representation of that for us and when we abuse that right, that gift, it saddens and upsets Jesus, and rightfully so. McKnight discusses how Jesus was very clear when saying that divorce is wrong and is breaking a life long commitment of submission to another party, and when referring it to the church and Jesus Christ, it becomes a much greater comparison because it’s now about eternity and submitting to a God who created you / us.

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  11. I thought is was interesting that Jesus taught on the subject of divorce because it was such a rarity in Jesus’ culture that it seems redundant for him to teach on it. I liked how you mentioned that it was most likely because what would happen in the future. That we would need this topic for guidance. Even if many people do not follow the law set forth here I think it is important to note that Jesus says that not everyone is meant to marry. That principle is important for today’s world because so many people feel the need to marry just because they are afraid to be alone. While in fact they are never alone, they still marry someone that may not be the best fir for them.

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  12. It is quite common in culture now for divorce to be an easy way out of something that you were not ready for, no longer enjoy, or are afraid of commitment. Our society has made it acceptable and just in their eyes to get a divorce if you do not like your marriage. We are not encouraged to work on it. More people are shamed for going through marriage counseling now because it means “they have problems,” and they become labeled. However, if someone is getting divorced, it is more likely that they are supported by friends and the community. This is not fact, but rather something I have seen in society and in relationships that I am aware of. It is not healthy. Just as you stated, when Jesus repeated what he said from the sermon on the mount but makes a change for Moses’s account that there is a possibility of divorce because the human heart is hard. It’s true. We prolong stubbornness in marriages rather than offer grace, one of which fixes things a whole lot faster. I do not think that the church has missed the point on marriage and divorce necessarily as much as they are just confused. McKnight points out that “Divorce confuses the church today because marriage confuses. And marriage confuses the church today because love confuses” (McKnight, pg.94). Love is something that was meant to be “until death do us part” but that is love that is unlike man kind. That is unconditional, hard working, and fruitful love. Something that our hardened hearts and misguided minds will never be able to fully comprehend. Now, in no way am I saying that our lack of knowledge of God’s love is to blame for all of this, but it kind of is. Churches need to encourage couples to get into the word together when they are struggling, to put them through that counseling session, to have community surround them. I think that churches can be so baffled or in denial that this happens, that they almost do not know what to do about it anymore. Contemporary christianity can help provide a biblical view of marriage by, like I said earlier, getting in the word together. To work through problems exemplifying grace to one another. The church should encourage a love without condition. The amount of times that I have heard jokes about marriages and how dull they are in sermons from pastors is disheartening. it show’s that there is no longer a pursuit taking place and that they, as one, are becoming stagnant. We laugh, but it’s small things like that which need to change.

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  13. Marriage is something that just about everyone strives to be a part of at some point in their lives. Is it always achievable? No, and God knows that. In the article it is written that “Humans were designed to enter into lifelong relationships, spiritual unions which create families and foster a community where children are raised.” Marriage is something God loves, He created it for His glory. However, He also knows that divorce would happen, but it’s a rarity and that He. Knew that it would happen.
    I think that the church does a good job at teaching adults on how to be married, but not so much for younger generations. Divorce is something that is a result of sin. I also don’t think that it is all entirely the churches fault for divorces because it is definitely a people issue. God has marriage to be intended for Him to be at the center. But we have made divorce too easy to obtain in the world that we live in. If we treat marriage in the way that Jesus is pursuing His bride (the church) we would have no issue within marriage. If we then keep Him at the center of our relationships, we too will have a constant push towards one another.

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  14. Even though God ingrained marriage ever since the creation of the earth, he also knew it could be broken. I believe this should not come as a surprise to anyone, we are broken humans. We tend to break things. Take for example… humanity? We had one restriction and we broke it. There is no doubt marriage will also be broken. Otherwise, like stated in the post above, Jesus would not have addressed it. It is important to keep in mind that because it was made by God it will not mean that it will come easy. Marriage will take work and sacrifice. It will take being selfless and ultimately putting God first. The church has been trying hard to help keep marriages together, but it is sad to see how many christians decide to turn to divorce as their only choice. Restoration is always possible through God.

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    • It is sad to think about things that were created so beautifully, yet they still have the potential to end up broke. Just like marriage. Marriage definitely takes work and sacrifice, but that is what makes it so great. Marriage is to reflect God’s love. Divorce, though already a tough decision, destroys the reflection of God. “Our love for our spouse is to be with them, to be for them, and to be unto God’s formative purpose for each of us (McKnight, 2013, pg. 95).

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  15. I think that one way the church is able to reach out to those who have been divorced is to reinforce the idea of what marriage is to look like in the eyes of God. God created marriage to be a covenant between not only two people, but also with him. When we lose God in marriages, that is when we start to see them fall apart. Ecclesiastes 4:12 even states the importance on how a chord of three strands is not quickly broken. The third strand in the chord of marriage has to be God. Without him, things start to break.

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  16. I think historically the church has missed the point on divorce. It seems to be viewed of as an unforgivable sin. While God did not intend for divorce it is clear that he has allowed it. He said to them, “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” (Matthew 19:8-9). Divorce should be dealt with compassion just as any other struggle people go through.

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  17. We live in a sinful world. It is sad to think about how common divorce is now days. Although, each divorce has its reasons, it sometimes seems like instead of working things out they call it quits. I like how the blog mentions the different things that break down marriage. It also makes me think about how sometimes couples will try to ignore their struggles for the simple fact that they do not want to divorce can face the ’embarrassment’ from the church. The blog mentions that Jesus knew divorce would happen, but the book talks about how Jesus was still against it. Jesus talks about how marriage is a sacred and holy union created by God. “Divorce is always contrary to God’s creation” (McKnight, 2013, pg. 103).

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  18. The fall complicated the things of life, such as marriage, love, and divorce. Adam was given a perfect match, and when they both ate from the forbidden fruit, hid from God, and put blame on each other for the betrayal they committed. (Mcknight, 95). it change the way of the world and the way us as humans act and treat others. instead of acting in love we now seek power and control. marriage is meant to be a covenant of love not a power play to be in control of one another. Jesus expresses how he feels about divorce as a “covenant relationship of God with us as the one who is for us” (Mcknight, 95). all he wants is for us to love one another as he first loved us.

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