divorceDivorce is the great ravager of American culture. Writing for Business News Daily, David Mielach cites an academic paper titled, “The Divorce Revolution Perpetually Reduces U.S. Economic Growth: Divorce Removes a Fourth of Head-of-Household Productivity Growth” that contains a chilling quote, “Besides population effects originating in the 1960s and 1970s, there are no other consequences of policy change that have had a greater effect in slowing economic growth than the divorce revolution.”[1] Aristotle taught that economics is the foundation of any society.[2] In a certain sense this is true…but Aristotle, as a pre-modern thinker, presupposed an ethical foundation that is quickly eroding in the contemporary Western world. A strong economy needs sound ethics in order to survive the ebb and flow of inevitable economic fluctuations. Cultural scholars worth their salt will recognize that a strong family unit is the glue that holds society, and ultimately the economy, together. Could it be that some economic sluggishness is merely a symptom of a sort of spiritual recession? 

Economics aside, when we come to the tough sayings of Jesus there can be the tendency to want someone to tell us that Jesus didn’t mean what He clearly said. All of us want someone to plead our case. Outside of God changing our heart we even desire to be declared innocent when we know we’re guilty. We can be tempted to quickly claim grace before repentance, which must always precede receiving grace. I realize that divorce cuts deeply as it is one of the most sensitive subjects one could address. Even still, Jesus addresses divorce, which means that if we take Him seriously we must deal it as well. In Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:3-12 Jesus throws out a grenade of Truth in a divorce-happy culture:

Matthew 5:31-32 It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 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.

Matthew 19:3-11 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.” 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.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”
Here are a few observations on Jesus on marriage:

 • Jesus goes back to the beginning: First there must be a proper biblical understanding of marriage before we can rightly understand divorce – 5:27  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’

In other words, you must have a standard before you can understand what is sub-standard. There must be an established law before we can make sense of what it means to break the law. 

➢ Marriage is a sacred covenant between the man, the woman, God, and the community – 19:5 “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’”

Some of us remember the change from “All-girls-have-cooties” of the Little Rascals’ “He-Man-Woman-Haters-Club” to the “I-Will-Punch-my-best-friend-in-the-face if he says anything negative about her-Club.” When boys become men they view women differently. The desire for a man to pursue a woman and for a woman to desire being pursued by a man is both natural and God-given (although overly timid males and overanxious cougars often confuse the process). The Apostle Paul writes in, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). Marriage itself should mirror Christ’s love for the Church.

➢ Marriage is a knitting together of dreams, emotions, and trust – 19:6a “So they are no longer two but one flesh.”

➢ Marriage is a covenant for better or worse; not a contract for convenience or a guarantee of happiness – 19:6b “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

Notice that Jesus ‘answer to the Pharisees’ end with “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” The disciples’ response is fear of committing to marriage at all!

To properly understand Jesus’ teaching on divorce, it is helpful to understand the cultural conception of marriage in His day.

Jesus’ teaching on divorce:

  • A man cannot divorce a woman for any reason – 5:31

It’s clear that many we’re looking for a loophole! John MacArthur (affectionately known as “Jonny-Mac”), states, “Jesus teaching on divorce was given specifically to refute the rabbinical loopholes.”[3] Matt Chandler cuts to the smokescreen to the Pharisaic heart in Matthew 19 with these words, “Is there any reason by which we can divorce our wives?” Now isn’t that a horrible question? Right? Did you hear it? “I want to be godly. I want to look godly, so give me the godly reason to dump this fool, to get away from this woman. How do I get out?” That’s the question. “How do I get out of this?”… God’s plan, God’s design is that two would become one flesh, and that would create an unbreakable bond, a ferocious commitment to one another that is going to…mirror God’s covenant with his people.”[4]

In that day, there were two leading schools on divorce.

➢ School of Shammai: Divorce only allowed in cases of infidelity.

➢ School of Hillel: A man can divorce a woman for any reason.
Craig Keener writes, “the school of Hillel, which eventually won out, said that a man could divorce his wife if she burned the toast (a later rabbi of this school added, “Or if you find someone more attractive”!).”[5] Yet Jesus didn’t get suckered into a religious-political battle. Rather, He goes back to God’s original intent of marriage.

  • According to Jesus, infidelity is the exception for divorce – 5:32

Porneia includes all sorts of sexual impropriety. Which has been understood as “(a) a single act of adultery, (b) unfaithfulness during the period of betrothal (Matt. 1:19), (c) marriage between near relatives (Lev. 18:6–18), or (d) continued promiscuity.”[6] One particular instance was Joseph’s plan to quietly end his betrothal to Mary when he learned of her pregnancy.

A proper historical perspective reveals how helpless women were in first century Palestinian Jewish culture. Since women had few legal rights they were at the mercy of hard-hearted husbands who could “divorce” them for something so trivial as burning the toast. Requiring an actual writing of divorce allowed provided women the legal option to remarry and avoid an almost inevitable life of prostitution and/or poverty.

➢   Also, abandonment by an unbelieving spouse – 1 Corinthians 7:12-15

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.”

Outside of these very limited exceptions, Jesus’ point is simply that divorce and remarriage for any other reason is adultery in God’s eyes.

  • As a last resort, a man must give the woman the legal right of respect with a documented divorce as opposed to verbally disowning her – 5:31, Deut. 24:1

Deut 24:1 “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,”

Here are a few statements on the reason why the Mosaic Law required a writing of divorce:

“The written notice (βιβλιον [biblion]) was a protection to the wife against an angry whim of the husband who might send her away with no paper to show for it.”[7]

“a legal check upon reckless and tyrannical separation.”[8]

“Mosaic regulation (Deut 24:1) protected woman from man’s caprice by insisting on the certificate of divorce.”[9]

So why is there an exception clause in the Mosaic Law at all? According to Jesus, it is, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (Matt 19:8a). The word for “hardness” carries the idea of a heart that is “dried up (σκληρος [sklēros]), hard and tough.[10] So then what about remarriage? John MacArthur rightly writes, “Remarriage is permitted for the faithful partner only when the divorce was on biblical grounds. In fact, the purpose for a biblical divorce is to make clear that the faithful partner is free to remarry, but only in the Lord….”[11]

marriage commitmentWhy does Jesus reference the heart? The crux of Jesus’ gospel is a heart transformed by grace. In order for marriage to be what God intended the heart must be emptied of law-driven self-will in order to become saturated with the marriage-sustaining power of grace. 

Application:

  • If single, do not enter a relationship with a person not sold out to Christ & missional living: Above all else, seek after God (Mt. 6:33).

–        Singleness holds massive ministry potential.

–        Learn to find your source of identity in God, not another person.

–        Listen to godly counsel.

–        Girls: it’s ok to drop a hint but don’t stalk him.

–        Guys: if you’re interested, then pursue.

  • If divorced, seek to model grace & biblical values so that your children can learn from your brokenness and avoid the heartbreak of divorce.

–      Let humility saturate: humility is a light that will lead you children.

–      Study Ephesians 5 together.

–      Use your Scars as a Story of grace.

*For a full more detailed discussion of this important topic, check out our podcast: http://www.rockymountbaptistchurch.com/media/messages/2014/2014-02-09-divorce-1.php  



[1] David, Mielach, “Divorce is Bad for the Economy,” Business News Daily, March 12, 2012, http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/2215-divorce-bad-economy.html

[2] Craig Mitchell, Ethics & Public Policy, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, January 2007.

[3] John MacArthur, “What’s Your View of Divorce?” Grace to You, http://www.gty.org/Resources/Questions/QA118

[4] Matt Chandler, “Marriage & Oaths,” The Village Church, http://www.thevillagechurch.net/sermon/marriage-and-oaths/

[5] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), in Logos Library System [CD-ROM].

[6] L.A. & Jr. Barbieri, In J.F. Walvoord & R.B. Zuck, eds., The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), in Logos Library System [CD-ROM].

[7] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), in Logos Library System [CD-ROM].

[8] R. Jamieson, A.R. Fausset, & D. Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), in Logos Library System [CD-ROM].

[9] C.F. Pfeiffer & E.F. Harrison, eds., The Wycliffe Bible Commentary: New Testament (Chicago: Moody Press, 1962), in Logos Library System [CD-ROM].

[10] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), in Logos Library System [CD-ROM].  

[11] John MacArthur, “Divorce & Remarriage,” Grace to You, http://www.gty.org/resources/distinctives/dd04/divorce-and-remarriage