Marriage - The Divorce Clause

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Part Six – The Divorce Clause & Jesus

A review of the previous study is helpful at this point. In answering the question of divorce and remarriage the Lord’s answer as given in Matt. 19:3-12 is a good starting place. The reason to start here is because this passage is the primary passage most Christians turn too for an answer on this issue. The last several weeks have been spent studying Jesus answer in detail because there can be no room for misinterpreting or misunderstanding what the Lord was communicating regarding this important subject. Here are a few facts to consider as we begin today’s study.

1) Jesus’ appeal to the original design of marriage given by God in Genesis 1 and 2 excludes all grounds for a divorce that frees a person to remarry (Matt. 19:4-6). Paul confirms this is the view of the Lord in 1 Cor. 7:10-11 where God leaves room for separation but not remarriage.

2) The Pharisees raised the objection of the Divorce clause of Moses given in Duet. 24:1-4. They believed this clause gave grounds that Jesus was denying (Matt. 19:7)

3) Jesus answers this objection by pointing out that the Pharisees were incorrect in their understanding of this Law of Moses.

a) It was not commanded but rather allowed. God permitted it but did not require it.

b) It was made necessary by the sinfully hard hearts of married men.

c) It was not in contradiction with God original design. In other words it does not violate what He has previous said on this matter

d) It applied to a very special circumstance. It speaks of the case of a betrothed woman who is not a virgin at the time of her betrothal. In most cases it is the revelation that she is pregnant that discloses her sinful past. The one she has been intimate with is not her husband (by betrothal) and her husband can not forgive her of her sin nor is he willing to raise the woman’s child as his own. Since his heart is hard toward her he is given permission to write her a bill of divorcement and he is free to remarry as also is she. This sexual sin had to take place before the betrothal, because any such sin that takes place after the betrothal is considered adultery. The Law required all guilty of adultery to be put to death. The innocent party is therefore free to marry without the need of a divorce. 

Having pointed out the flawed understanding of the Pharisees of Moses’ Law, Jesus now determines to bring this passage into a correct and biblical understanding. He does so in Matt.19:9 by restating the Duet. 24:1-4 law so that none might misunderstand it. An examination of this statement shows that this is what our Lord is doing.

Jesus begins with the words, “and I say to you,” indicating He is addressing these Pharisees with the authority of God Himself. In other words, regardless of how the Pharisees may have interpreted Deut. 24:1-4, Jesus was going to give the interpretation that God intended. To better understand what our Lord is saying, we should look at the statement minus the exception clause. By doing this we find our Lord’s words as follows:

“whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery”

Looking at Jesus statement this way gives one the understanding that except for one circumstance, if a couple divorce and remarry they commit adultery and those who marry them commit adultery. These are very strong words and leaves no questions as to God’s intent for marriage. As Jesus said earlier, “what God has joined together let no man put asunder (19:6). Let us stop at this point and note a couple of important points.

1) Those who divorce and remarry without biblical grounds are guilty of the act of adultery but they are not living in the state of adultery. The difference here is between committing a one time act of adultery versus living in a perpetual state of adultery. They commit an act of adultery when they say their vows to their new mate thus breaking and violating their previous vows. However, once the new vows are said, the act is over and God does not consider the couple living in sin.

It is important take note of this difference for some hold to the idea that a remarried couple are living in a continual state of adultery. They therefore call for the couple to dissolve their present union in order to put an end to their sin. This is clearly not the will of God. God never corrects one sin by another sin. For a remarried person to divorce his/her present mate would require the breaking of their present vows and this would be a sin. Likewise, there are no commands from God telling divorced and remarried couples to separate from their present mate. 

Some may say that in Ezra 9 God told the Israelites to divorce their foreign wives. Is this not an example to be followed today? However, let us keep in mind that the issue here was not divorce and remarriage. It was the sinful disobedience of the Jewish people in marrying those of other races. God had forbid this to happen. Also, let us note that it is God who directly tells them to do this very thing. No such command can be found given to the divorced and remarried.

2) Those who divorce and remarry for any reason but the exception are doing so against the will of God. In essence they are defying God by committing the sin of adultery through remarriage. Adultery is one of the most serious sins that an individual can commit. In the OT it carried the same punishment and shame as homosexuality and other serious sins. Too often today in Christian circles, this point is totally ignored. Christians divorce for any and every reason and remarry and seek the blessing of God and their fellow believers. Too often the individuals who are remarrying are congratulated and showers are given and everyone seems excited and happy. But why do they do these things? Do they not understand that this couple is about to commit one of the most serious sins anyone can commit. There is something wrong in the church when we celebrate a sinful act taking place! Yet this is the common practice in the majority of evangelical congregations.

Since it has been noted that the vast majority divorces and remarriages do not fall under this exception and are thus not God’s will, then when is it right? What is this exception that Jesus gives? A simple but important rule of biblical interpretation gives us the answer. The context of verse 9 indicates that Jesus is finishing his answer to the Pharisees regarding the Deut. 24:1-4 divorce clause given by Moses. Jesus is setting the record straight on what God had in mind when he gave that clause. In contrast to the interpretation of the theologians of that day, Jesus responds by stating with authority that His interpretation of the clause is the correct one.

Since Jesus is addressing the Old Testament Law of divorcement in Deut. 24:1-4, then he is speaking of the exception that is found there. This takes place when after a couple are betrothed it is discovered that the bride is not a virgin, probably pregnant with another man’s child, and the husband is unwilling to be married to her. In such circumstances God permits the husband divorce his wife and remarry another. In Jesus view any other reason given to justify divorce and remarriage leads to the act of adultery. Since we do not have a betrothal as the Jews did nor are we bound by the Mosaic Law given specifically to the Jewish people, this exception clause has no bearing upon marriage in the Church age. In essence Christ by giving this exception is indicating that there are no grounds for divorce and remarriage in the church age. None whatsoever.

But how can we know that this was in the mind of Jesus? There is one additional piece of evidence that confirms this understanding. Jesus declares that the exception clause centered around “fornication”. We must note that the word He uses here is the Greek porneía (porneía) which is a different word from the word moichátai (moichátai) which means adultery. Thayer’s Lexicon indicates that though porneia is often inclusive of all sexual immorality, it is distinquished from adultery (moichatia) when used in the same context as illustrated in Matt. 15:19 and Mark 7:21. Likewise Vine’s Expository Dictionary makes note of the same distinction. To further support this distinction in terms is seen in the fact that if the Lord had adultery in mind as the exception, he would have used the word for adultery. Porneia when used in the same context as adultery would take on the meaning of sexual immorality outside of marriage in contrast to that which takes place after marriage, moichatia.

Therefore Jesus was in essence giving the same interpretation of Deut. 24:1-4 that was uncovered in the previous study. God is very rigid when it comes to divorce and remarriage. He gave no grounds for it in the beginning when He created it and Jesus sees no change in God’s plan for marriage in the present.

The fact that this is the understanding of Jesus words is seen in the response of his disciples in verse 10. Stunned by Jesus denouncement of all grounds for divorce except premarital sex, the disciples blurt out their evaluation of such a restrictive view. 

Mt 19:10, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry." 

In other words, if a man can not divorce his wife, and he marries some one who is difficult to get along with, it is better not to risk such a fate and remain unmarried. However, our Lord reminds them in verses 11-12 that most men and women can not resist the drive to marry. Therefore the life of celibacy is not the path for most.

To sum this all up, this commonly quoted passage used by most as grounds for divorce and remarriage in the church has no jurisdiction on the Church age Saint. We are not under the Mosaic Law which was fulfilled by Christ. As Christ indicates marriage has always been governed by the original design for marriage as given in Genesis one and two. Likewise, we do not practice a betrothal or espousal period as did the Jews of Old Testament times therefore this law would not have any practical application in modern marriage. Finally, even if we did take the exception clause as adultery as many do and apply it to the Church Age, it would still prohibit the majority of divorces and remarriages that are plaguing the churches these days.

God calls us to follow His Word and His rules. It is not always the easiest path. Often it is the harder way to live. However it is also the most rewarding. If the church were to once again to practice the principles laid out in Genesis one and two, divorce could almost be eliminated from the church. Let us remember that we are not to be like the world. We are to live on a plain above the world as God has set it for us.