Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage | Matthew 5:31-32
Today we are jumping back in on the Sermon on the Mount, which is a sermon that Jesus gave in Matthew chapters 5-7. And today is one of those days where a pastor like me can’t help but be tempted to weaken or adjust what the Bible has to say about a particular topic. Today, we’re looking at what Jesus had to say about divorce and remarriage in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as what a few other passages of Scripture have to say. With this being such a sensitive topic, and with divorce being so rampant, I’m reminded yet again that my job as your pastor is to shepherd you, not with some encouraging word from Pastor Ryan each week, but with a Word from God Himself. My job is to unleash the Word of God, so that God can encourage us, and convict us, and reveal truth to us.
This kind-of brings up part of our philosophy of ministry here at Raintree. Our main goal when we gather on Sundays is to equip believers to become more like Christ, then GO OUT of this place to live like Christ and reach others with the Gospel. THE way that I can equip you, and the way that we can equip each other, is with the Word of God, what it says and ALL of what it says.
I know that many in here have been divorced, some probably on biblical grounds, and maybe some not on biblical grounds. My job today, and every day, is not to affirm maybe what has happened in your past, nor is it to condemn what may be in your past. We mentioned last week that one of the most beautiful things about being a Christian is that we have real, spiritual and eternal freedom. If you have turned from your sin, and placed your faith in Christ, who is our Substitute who bears all the penalty of our sin, then we are FREE from our sin, free from shame. One of the most healthy things we can do as Christians is take hold of our past and use it as pulpits to preach from and share what God has done in our lives, where he has brought us from, what he has brought us through. So today, while we’re really focusing primarily on what the Bible says about when God permits divorce and remarriage, please know: the goal is not to shame or discourage, the goal is to see what God says in His Word, and to experience the freedom to follow his will from this point forward.
Now, it’s impossible, today, to deal with every situation when it comes to divorce. There are thousands of scenarios that we can’t directly address in 30 minutes. The Bible does deal in quite a straightforward manner about divorce, but it obviously doesn’t address every specific circumstance that someone might find themselves in. Because of this, it seems the way the church has responded is to turn a blind eye on divorce. Why? Because it’s easier not to deal with it than to deal with it. So often it’s just not brought up, this type of passage we’re looking at today is just skipped over. The hard thing is to take a few things we know to be true according to God’s Word, and seek God’s will in how to apply them to so many different situations.
So today, what I’d like to do is give 5 biblical principles of divorce and remarriage. Because this is the first time we’re talking about this subject, we’ll be looking at several passages of Scripture, most of which will be on the screen behind me. Let’s read, first, what Jesus says in just two verses in Matthew chapter 5. Jesus is right in the middle of going through six statements of, “You have heard that it was said this, but I say to you this.” Six times in Matthew 5 he does this, contrasting traditional Jewish teaching with what God actually taught in the Old Testament. So this is the third of these statements, this time dealing with the topic of divorce- just two verses. Matthew 5:31-32, it says this.
“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, again, from this text, and from several others I’ll bring up, I want us to see 5 Biblical Principles on Divorce and Remarriage. The first is this…
- Marriage is a lifelong union (5:31, 19:6, Gen. 2:24).
In verse 31 that we just read, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said.” He’s actually referring here to a specific Old Testament passage, in fact the only law in the Old Testament about divorce, Deuteronomy 24. And I do want to read the first four verses on Deuteronomy 24, which you can see on the screen behind 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 take her again 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.”
What’s going on here? Well, this is something called a case law. It’s giving a very specific situation or case, and then the law that God has commanded to navigate this specific case. Verses 1-3 are the situation, and the law doesn’t actually come until verse 4: the former husband cannot take her to be his wife again.
What God is doing in Deuteronomy 24 is protecting the woman from being taken advantage of. How so? The first husband acquired his wife’s dowry after having charging her with some indecency. He got the marriage present that she received from her father, because she was “indecent” in some way. So if she then goes off and gets married, gets a second marriage gift from her father in order to be married, and then that husband dies or if for some reason they divorce, this law in verse 4 protects her from her first husband, who may try and marry her again to receive that second dowry. Does that make sense?
So why does Jesus refer to this in Matthew 5. Well, some of the Jewish teachers disagreed on what exactly Deut. 24 was saying, but one of the largest parties within the Pharisees interpreted verse 1 to mean that you could divorce your wife for any reason at all! They completely ignored the point of this case law, to protect the woman, and took part of the specific example, the part that says “for some indecency,” and took that to mean, “Haha! I can divorce for any reason at all.” It’s rather ridiculous. In fact, in some of their official doctrine, it said you could divorce your wife just for spoiling a dish. A few others even said if you found someone that was “fairer” or prettier, God allowed you to divorce. It was outrageous. Many of these Jews, clearly reading into the Old Testament what they wanted to see instead of what was actually there, believed that God blessed divorce no matter the reason. Ironically, that’s not too different than US popular culture in 2016!
Jesus speaks quite strongly against this, and in order to really understand what Jesus did have to say about divorce, we must understand the nature of marriage, and what God teaches us about marriage. Because Jesus understood this, He himself being God and being the one who instituted marriage in the first place! At the most basic level of what Jesus was saying was, “Marriage is not something that is dispensable; instead, marriage is a lifelong union.” This is seen thru-out the Bible.
Gen. 2:24 is one of the most foundational verses worth having engrained into your heart and mind, and it says this: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” You see, why can’t we say, “I can divorce for any reason.” Because Marriage is God’s creation, not ours. We can’t define marriage as we wish and make it dispensable, because God created and therefore defines marriage. Even non-Christians who are married are doing what? They’re participating in something that God created. What is it that he created? A lifelong union between a man and a woman. The two become one!
It’s exactly for that reason that divorce often feels like losing part of who you are, because you’re cutting one person in two. There might be some relief because some of the problems are no longer problems you have to face, but it’s still incredibly painful. It’s incredibly painful for a reason, because God did not design marriage to be broken.
I realize I am young. I’ve never been divorced, and I nor anyone else can pretend to have lived exactly what any of you have lived, and yet that doesn’t change what God’s plan for marriage has been from the beginning. The most common reason I’ve heard for divorce or for someone desiring divorce, is because the husband doesn’t love the wife anymore, or the wife doesn’t love the husband anymore.
And to that, I just have to say: I don’t want to completely de-romanticize love here, because there are many ways in which I can’t help but love Lauryn. BUT, the THRUST of real love is CHOICE! You CHOOSE to serve and love someone for better or for worse. You CHOOSE to become one with someone, never to break that union. But even so, that’s the most common reason for men up and leaving their wives and families: “I can’t help it; I love this other woman.” I know! STOP IT! Some divorces seem to have been grounded in a misunderstanding of what love is. Read 1 Corinthians 13 to see what real love is. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Real marital love doesn’t change with the wind; it’s a commitment to a LIFELONG union between you and your spouse.
- Divorce is always the result of sin, but it is not always itself sinful. (Malachi 2:16; Matt. 19:3-9)
How do we know it’s always the result of sin? Well, because at least one of the two who are married are not fulfilling their covenant vows to each other, and more importantly to God. It’s always the result of sin, and sometimes the divorce itself is sinful. The question is, “When is it sinful and when is it not?” But before we get there, we must make clear, that these allowances by God are just that, allowances. God permits divorce in certain situations, but he NEVER commands it. Ever.
In fact, Malachi 2:16 says, “I hate divorce, says the God of Israel.” God hates divorce, all divorce. Why? Because it’s the separation between two people that God has united in marriage! God hates divorce because it’s always the result of the fall of man, the result of sin. I don’t want us to miss this, and we mustn’t weaken these truths. The only reason God allows divorce for ANY reason is because of our sin. In fact, another passage worth turning to for a moment is Matthew chapter 19. The Pharisees come up to Jesus, again trying to trick him into saying something that would get him into trouble. Starting in verse 3, going through verse 9:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 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.”
Yet again, we see such strong language used to describe the union of marriage. Every marriage on earth between a man and a woman is those two people taking part of this God-inspired and God-established union of two people. Therefore, what GOD has joined together, let not man separate! There are so many implications here, I wish we had time to go into all of them, and we likely will one day. But the basic gist here is there is no other loyalty on earth higher than to your wife or husband. You leave the family of your birth to create a new family that is more important now than the family you were born into. That’s how important this is, and again, why divorce is such a tragedy.
Jesus goes on and says, “Because of your hardness of heart, Moses allowed divorce.” Now that doesn’t mean that anyone who ever initiates a divorce is in sin or has a hard heart. That’s not it at all. He’s pointing to the fact that divorce is always the result of hardness of heart, the result of sin in either the husband or the wife or both.
This is part of the reason that we should never treat divorce as a victory, or as something that God wanted, or even that it was God’s will for a divorce to come about. I know, that depending on the situation, divorce can feel like a victory, perhaps getting out of an incredibly unhealthy relationship, especially if there are biblical grounds for the divorce. But even with that, we must still see divorce as a tragedy, because it is.
For those of you who’ve been divorced, the fact that it’s a tragedy probably could go without saying. Because while there may be relief in some ways, it often causes incredible deep scars and feelings of failure, or rejection, or disappointment, regret, even if you did very little to cause the divorce. I want you to know, in the life of the believer, there is no place for shame. We’ll talk about that more in a just a minute.
But we must be clear in our language: I don’t think there is such a thing as God leading someone to get a divorce. Does he permit it? In certain circumstances, yes. But with such strong language that God himself speaks, like “I hate divorce” from Malachi 2:16, and the fact that divorce is always the result of sin, it doesn’t seem right to give God the credit for divorce.
Now God gives a few specific circumstances in which divorce is permissible even in His eyes. Though the high majority of divorces do not happen on biblical grounds, there are a few biblical grounds that make divorce permissible according to the Bible. Let’s get into these. The third biblical principle of divorce and remarriage:
- God allows divorce and rem. after sexual immorality (5:32; 19:9).
In Matthew 5:32 from our original text, Jesus says, “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.” The Greek word used here for sexual immorality or marital unfaithfulness is “porneia”, which refers to any type of sexual immorality—adultery, fornication, even prostitution. Because of the importance of the sexual union in a marriage, breaking that sexual union is a permissible reason for divorce. And a man or woman who’s been divorced because of the sexual immorality of their spouse, they are free to remarry in God’s eyes.
Jesus was confronting the Jews for having lowered God’s standards to their own. They saw any reason as a right and valid reason for divorce. That’s not too different from our broad culture nowadays. But Jesus pretty strongly opposes what was the common understanding of the day. He says, you say that as long as you have a certificate, any reason is ok. I’m saying, no. In fact, in this verse, and in chapter 19, verse 9, which we read earlier, sexual immorality is the only reason given by Jesus that makes divorce permissible. Now the Apostle Paul gives us one other biblical ground for divorce, and this is our 4th Biblical Principle. Here it is:
- God allows divorce and remarriage after desertion (1 Cor. 7:15).
In 1 Corinthians chapter 7, Paul is addressing the Corinthians and imploring them to remain faithful to their husbands and wives, and to avoid divorce, and to be content with where God has called them to be. He’s addressing these brand new believers, some of whom are married to unbelievers. He makes clear to them that God does not want them to divorce, assuming their spouses don’t want to divorce. And then he comes to verse 15 of chapter 7: “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.”
So this makes clear that desertion, someone up and leaving, is a permissible reason for divorce. We don’t have too much control over someone who just up and leaves. And in this case, just like in the case of sexual immorality, the innocent spouse is also free to remarry—that’s what he means when he says, “In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved.”
Now it does say, specifically, if an unbelieving spouse abandons the family. So what if a believer abandons their family. Well, to be completely honest, I don’t know that a real born-again Christian with the Holy Spirit dwelling inside his or her heart, can leave their family permanently without experiencing incredible conviction and so returning. In other words, someone permanently abandoning their family, I would say that absolutely is addressed in this verse from the Apostle Paul. Judging by the fruit, it seems like it is very likely that this person is not a believer after all. So God does allow divorce and remarriage after desertion as well as sexual immorality.
So we see two biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage. Divorcing without biblical grounds, and then remarrying, according to Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, results in adultery. Marrying a man or woman who has been divorced for reasons other than what God permits, according to these verses, is adultery. That’s a very difficult thing. Obviously, the question that immediately comes to mind, “Can I not remarry? Ryan, are you saying that if my divorce was not due to my spouse either cheating or just abandoning, then remarrying is committing adultery? Can I really not remarry?”
That question I must just leave with you. In my mind, I don’t know how to read Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 any differently. It seems so clear. Is it possible that God allows remarriage if all that happened before you were a Christian? Is it possible that 1 Corinthians 7:9, which says “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” Is it possible that that speaks into the question of remarriage. I, personally, hesitate even saying maybe to those questions. Because as soon as I speak where the Bible does not clearly speak, a Pandora’s Box opens with suddenly any heart-felt reason for divorce and remarriage being OK, even though God doesn’t tell us that. I heavily encourage you to study up on this, but not to come to the Bible with an agenda, but to be people of the Word, who honestly struggle with this, who genuinely desire to obey God and whatever he says in His Word, no matter how difficult. If you want further resources, I can gladly give you commentaries, opinions from Bible scholars, other resources. Please feel free to talk to me.
Another big question that comes to mind, which there are I know many, and we can’t address all in our time today, but another is, “What if I’m already remarried? I got divorced; I also remarried. The divorce was not on biblical grounds. What do I do now?” The short answer is this: No matter where you have been in the past, even if you’ve been divorced and it was not on biblical grounds, it does not make sense now to divorce again to try and get back together with your original husband or wife. If God hates divorce, then he doesn’t want another divorce to try and make it with your first spouse. Also, Paul’s attitude in 1st Corinthians 7, he clearly emphasizes staying as you are.
But, I also have to be clear in saying that if you look back now and realize that your divorce was sinful, it wasn’t permissible according to God’s Word, God calls us to repent from our sin! That means realizing it was sinful, being contrite, confessing it to God, and committing that area of your life to Him now.
Are there no other cases that permit divorce?!
So what about other reasons for divorce? What about abuse?! Surely God permits divorce when there is abuse going on. The Bible does not specifically say anything about abuse being a permissible reason for divorce. BUT, the Bible does have plenty to say about abuse itself. Physical abuse is intolerable. We know what marriage is to look like from Ephesians 5 especially, and abuse of any kind is absolutely ungodly and, again, intolerable.
We have to be as clear as possible in something like this: If you or a child is unsafe, get out of that environment. There’s nothing sinful or unbiblical about separating from someone who is abusive. In fact, it is right and biblical to seek a safe place. It’s always best and fits God’s plan for marriage for restoration to happen, but with someone who’s abusive, a lot must happen before that is sought out. There must be proof of real repentance and trustworthiness, and there’s got to be physical and emotional healing for all involved, and sometimes all of that might take years, assuming it happens at all. But beyond separating from someone who is abusive, I cannot say more than that without saying something that the Bible does not say.
So, “What about divorce?” Does God allow divorce in situations other than sexual immorality or desertion? There are so many serious issues out there other than sexual immorality and desertion: Abuse, serious mental issues that cause the relationship to be incredibly unhealthy and practically impossible, extreme emotional neglect and unhappiness. For Christians who believe the Bible to be God’s Word, and who desire to obey it and follow what God has given us, “What about divorce for other reasons?” I cannot say to you, “Yes.” I can’t, no matter how much I may want to. Because it’s not my job to give you my opinion and pretend like it’s God’s. My job is to let God speak for Himself to the best of my ability, giving you what the Bible says.
I also can’t say, “absolutely not,” to that question. Why? Well, because Jesus doesn’t give both sexual immorality and desertion as permissable reasons for divorce. And yet we know from Apostle Paul that desertion is a permissable reason as well as sexual immorality. In other words, is it possible that this isn’t an exhaustive list of permissible reasons for divorce, and could it be that it wouldn’t be sinful to divorce for reasons such as abuse? I can’t answer that. I think it makes much more sense to speak where the Bible speaks and remain silent where the Bible is silent.
There are so many other specific situations that we can’t address in one message, nor does the Bible directly address, but one thing I do want to encourage you with: it wasn’t an accident that God didn’t say more about divorce and remarriage. He didn’t forget and accidentally leave something out. He’s God, he knew what he was doing. He IS so clear on the nature of marriage being a lifelong union. He IS so clear on the fact that divorce is always the result of sin, though it itself is not always sinful. He IS also clear that divorce is permissible after sexual immorality or desertion.
The reason we may have so much trouble with such seemingly strict guidelines for divorce and remarriage, is because we’ve, perhaps unknowingly, bought into the purpose of marriage as our culture defines it, as opposed to how God defines it. What is the purpose of marriage? Our fifth and final principle of marriage, divorce, and remarriage:
- Marriage is for God’s glory, not for our happiness.
Marriage is a wonderful thing, or at least it can be. But the purpose of marriage is not to give you identity or significance or value. From the beginning, if your marriage is where you find your happiness, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Why? Because that’s not what God designed it for! Marriage does not exist for our happiness. Our happiness is only found in Christ, in this right relationship that we have with God through Christ.
It’s only because of that, this magnificent truth of the Gospel, that Jesus has saved us from our sin, and He is where we find our identity and value—It’s ONLY because of that that we are able, even in the midst of great pain, to forgive and love and seek restoration when things aren’t going great. ONLY when we realize that marriage will not bring us the ultimate joy and happiness we so long for.
That’s how we can read the outrageous example of Hosea. If you’ve never read the book of Hosea, I’d encourage you to do it this week. But in this book, Hosea marries Gomer who is an unfaithful woman! Multiple times Gomer is unfaithful, and yet Hosea forgives her and brings her back into the marriage. How in the WORLD could he do that? The same question could be asked of God and unfaithful Israel. How in the world could God continue to love and bring Israel back after ridiculous and repeated unfaithfulness? For that matter, how could he love any of us, when we have rebelled against him and have been unfaithful?
Hosea’s ultimate joy was in his status as a child of God, not in his relationship to his wife. Obviously, this relationship mattered to him tremendously, and obviously he was distraught when his wife was unfaithful, but how was he not destroyed? Or at least how did he not give up on the marriage? Because his identity was as a child of God, a God who loved HIM despite HIS unfaithfulness.
That story, and the whole of Scripture, the many different references we’ve looked at today, show us that, ultimately, marriage isn’t about being happy—marriage is about bringing God glory, giving a picture of the gospel to the world around us.
If THAT’S where your joy is found, and where your value is found, you likely will not so quickly jump to divorce as the answer for what may feel like and what may BE huge issues in your marriage. Divorce may still be the way you must go if there are biblical grounds for it, but I guarantee you, if we truly found our identity and value in Christ, if Christians found their true identity and JOY in Christ, divorce rates within the Christian community would go down. There would be real confession, real repentance, and real restoration. What would it take? A lot of forgiveness, the type of forgiveness we’ve received ourselves in Christ.
This time with you today is not a time of condemnation. It’s a time of brokenness and hopefully some clarity. I don’t know what each and every one of you have been through in life. I don’t know your situation if you’ve been divorced. I don’t know what kind of pain you’ve experienced and likely still experience because of a struggling or failed marriage. But please hear me: God does know.
He knows the pain you’ve been through; he’s knows perhaps the mistakes you’ve made. And yet as a child of God, THERE IS NO LONGER ANY SHAME or condemnation. God says, “Come to me as you are, but don’t expect to stay as you are.” And that’s where the need comes in for this clarity on what God wants for marriages, and ultimately what God reveals to the world through our marriages. Like a husband who loves his wife and will die for his wife, so Christ loves the church and died for the church. Like the wife who submits and follows the spiritual leadership of her husband, so the church submits to and follows the leadership of Christ. Christ does not give up on the Church, no matter what happens, and nor should we give up on our spouses. In that way, we reflect the Gospel to the world through our marriages. Let’s pray.
More in Sermon on the Mount
October 2, 2016The Scariest Passage in the Bible | Matthew 7:13-23
September 25, 2016The Golden Rule and the Narrow Way | Matthew 7:12-14
September 18, 2016Asking for the Good Things | Matthew 7:7-11