Copyright © 2004 James A. Gunn
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One of the most difficult things for people to do is to objectively read the Bible.  We are often so prejudiced by our opinion that we won't heed God's word.  Of course, a believer will be constrained by God's word, or else he should question whether or not his interest in Christ is genuine.  Someone who hears what God says about a certain subject and then dismisses it as unimportant may be presuming on his relationship with Christ.  Have you ever heard anyone say, "Well, I don't care what the Bible says, I think...." 
Even if they don't say it, do they practice that attitude?

The standards set by Jesus for His followers are not difficult: they are impossible!  None of us can measure up apart from God's help.  Jesus set standard for marriage and divorce.

Matthew 19:1-15

After failing to ensnare Jesus with questions about the Sabbath and signs, the Pharisees now try a more controversial issue: Divorce. Jesus explained four different laws relating to marriage and divorce.

1. The Original Creation Law

Marriage was the very first institution given by God to man.  Adam needed a "helper fit for him" and God made one for him.  Marriage was intended to last for life.

Regardless of what society now accepts as "normal," the Bible is clear that sex is only permitted in marriage.  Can you imagine Adam and Eve “shacking up” in a "trial marriage" to see if it was going to work?  God doesn't allow for such nonsense today either.

2. The Seventh Commandment

Although Jesus does not refer to the seventh commandment at this time in Matthew 19, He did quote it in the Sermon on the Mount {Matthew 5:27-30}.  The New Testament affirms that adultery is sin!  Jesus taught that adultery begins in the heart.

3. The Mosaic Law of Divorce

Be sure to compare what the Law {Deut 24:1-4} actually said and what the Pharisees were trying to defend as tradition.  If there was cause, such as impurity, then divorce was permitted, but not commanded.  The “impurity could not have been adultery. The Law called for stoning the adulterer.

This was one of the options Joseph considered with Mary before the angel told him about Mary's Holy Child. Stoning would be the “public example” and divorce would be “putting her away privately” Matthew 1:19.

While God permitted divorce due to the hardness of their hearts,
God said, "I hate divorce."  {Malachi 2:16}

3. Jesus taught what the Law Meant

Divorce is not an "escape hatch" if it "doesn't work out."  How committed are people to making a marriage work if there is a way out?  Notice one of the disciples said, "If there's no way out, you are better off staying single." At least this disciple understood the gravity of divorce.

The discussion about eunuchs is teaching that if you divorce you can forget about sex. To divorce except for adultery and then to continue to have sex makes you an adulterer.

Then Jesus blesses the children {13-15}, I believe to show the purpose of commitment.


The custom that the Pharisees defended from old was that that when a wife was to be dismissed a certificate of divorce had to be properly drawn up and given to her as if a piece of parchment could dissolve a marriage. The opposing position expressed by Jesus is, as it were, "Why divorce at all?"  He states that the violation of the marriage contract through divorce except for adultery is nothing less than infidelity and adultery.

As in the other illustrations, Jesus goes beyond the rabbinical teaching to the original intention of the law.  {Gen 2:24; 24:67; Ex 20:14; Deut 5:18; Deut 24:1-4; Mal 2:14-16} 

Cf Eph 5:31-32; and Heb 13:4.  Then study Matt 5:32 & 19:3-9.

The intent of the law was that one man is joined to one woman until death parts them.
Cf Rom 7:2; 1 Cor 7:39

The only exception to death is infidelity, which permits divorce when one of the contracting parties, in this example the wife, rebels against the marriage-bond. While divorce is permitted because of adultery divorce is not commanded. The principle of forgiveness must always be considered.

Now the objection is raised, "Did not Moses leave room for greater freedom?" Deut 24:1-4
Such seemed to be the opinion of the scribes and Pharisees. Moses did not encourage divorce, but did not completely forbid it. There is no small disagreement among scholars over the meaning of the Hebrew phrase translated, "some uncleanness."  It cannot be adultery because the adulterer is to be stoned not divorced.

Deut 24:1-4 clearly discouraged divorce.  "Husband, you better think twice before you reject your wife.  Remember that once you have put her away and she becomes the wife of another man you cannot afterward take her back; not even if that other husband has rejected her or should have died."

The scribes and Pharisees placed the emphasis on the bill of divorce certificate, while Jesus placed the emphasis where it belonged.  They greatly exaggerated the importance of the exception, that which made the divorce possible.  Jesus stresses the principle that husband and wife should remain as one.

There is a difficulty in the translation of 32 "...causes her to commit adultery..."

An alternate translation is, "Whoever divorces his wife except on the basis of infidelity exposes her to adultery."  So Jesus is saying that whoever divorces his wife except for infidelity must bear the responsibility if as a result she, in a deserted state should yield to temptation and be married to someone else.  The erring husband should correct his error, that is, go back to his wife.  This also explains the closing clause, which says that anyone who rushes to marry the deserted wife is involving himself in adultery.

The more you meditate on Jesus' teachings the more you will appreciate them. In a few simple words, Jesus refutes the rabbinical misrepresentation of the law, reaffirms the law's true meaning, censures the guilty party, defends the innocent, and upholds the sacredness and inviolability of the marriage bond as ordained by God!

Are there other grounds for divorce besides infidelity?

It seems fairly evident that Jesus just stated that the single ground for divorce is adultery.

Is Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, teaching that desertion of a believer by an unbeliever is yet another ground for divorce?  That was my understanding for many years.  It is now my belief that the only biblical ground for divorce is adultery, and even then divorce is a last resort.  Then what is Paul teaching in 1 Corinthians 7?  Clearly Paul is not “correcting” what Jesus taught.  Now the apostles, through the Holy Spirit, added many teachings that are not fully taught in the gospels.  However, there is no instance where the apostles contradicted anything contained in the gospels. The primarily mission of the apostles was to complete the body of doctrine for the church. 

“They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine....”  {Acts 2:42}

1. Jesus only allowed adultery as grounds for divorce.

2. Paul does not add desertion as grounds for divorce.

3. A believer who is deserted is no longer in bondage, i.e., may by free to remarry, but with extreme caution that there is no possibility for reconciliation. 

The context of Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 seems to be that a state of celibacy is preferable to a remarriage when the other party has not committed adultery. If the party who leaves divorces the other it seems that then the marriage is dissolved.

An interesting question arises about the application of Deut 24:1-4 for Christians. The following adequately answers that question. All of Deut 24;1-4 is corrected by Christ. That includes the question of a remarriage between believers who may have divorced.

(to apostasiou): The Scripture doctrine of divorce is very simple. It is contained in
Matt 19:3-12.

We are not called upon to treat of divorce in the Mosaic legislation (Deut 24:1-4). That was passed upon by Jesus in the above discussion and by Him ruled out of existence in His system of religion. After Jesus had spoken as above, the Mosaic permission of divorce became a dead letter. There could not be practice under it among His disciples. So such Old Testament divorce is now a mere matter of antiquarian curiosity.


(from International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Electronic Database Copyright (c)1996 by Biblesoft)
James A. Gunn
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