Marriage is Sacred – Matthew 5:31-32

In this seventh part of the Sermon on the Mount, we’ll look at what Jesus has to say about marriage and divorce.

31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. (HCSB)

It is no coincidence that these two verses follow on the heels of the passage that talks about sexual sin. Sexual sin often leads to divorce.

It is also a passage that has caused much debate within the church and theological circles regarding the exact meaning and interpretation of this passage. Additionally, in today’s society, where divorce is rampant, amongst believers and unbelievers alike, some may disagree with what I write here or even become angry. However, I base what follows on Scripture and not my personal views.

In its original design, marriage is a life-long commitment between a man and a woman. There can be no other interpretation of the institution of marriage when Scripture is the foundation. For those who believe in same-sex unions, there is no biblical basis. If we truly are followers of Christ, we can’t compromise on this point. At the same time, it doesn’t mean that we are to treat those who do believe in same-sex unions in a hateful, derogatory, or demeaning manner. In some Christian circles, homosexuality is viewed as a worse sin than others. We need to remember that any sin will separate us from God, not just certain ones.

We also need to realize that we live in a fallen world. Sin is rampant around us, especially sins of a sexual nature. Although God hates divorce, Jesus is telling that in the case of marital infidelity, divorce is an option, although it should never be the first option.

Before we dive further into this passage, let’s talk a look at the Jewish background surrounding marriage and divorce, since the vast majority of the original hearers of this message were of Jewish background (Barclay).

  • From a theoretical standpoint, no nation ever had a higher ideal of marriage than Israel.
  • It was the sacred duty of a man to marry.
  • A man could delay or abstain from marriage only if he was going to dedicate his life to studying the Law (Scripture).
  • Otherwise, if a man refused to marry and have children, it was understood that he had broken the commandment that instructed men to be fruitful and multiply. He also diminished the image of God and destroyed his posterity.
  • The Jews despised divorce. The rabbis had numerous sayings:
    • We find that God is long-suffering to every sin except the sin of unchastity.
    • Unchastity causes the glory of God to depart.
    • Every Jew must surrender his life rather than commit idolatry, murder, or adultery.
    • The very altar sheds tears when a man divorces the wife of his youth.

However, practice often did not follow the stated ideals. In the male-dominated society of ancient Israel, women were, in the eyes of the Law, a thing and not a person. She was subject to the authority of her father or husband. A woman could not divorce her husband for any reason, but a man could divorce his wife for any cause. According to Rabbinic law, “A woman may be divorced with or without her will; but a man only with his will.”

The application was based upon Deuteronomy 24:1  If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something improper about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house.

The key words in this verse are “something improper.” It is the interpretation of these two words that the whole argument, within Jewish society, of the grounds for divorce hinged. In all matters of Jewish law, there were two schools of thought. There was the school of Shammai, which was the strict, severe, austere school; and there was the school of Hillel, which was the liberal, broad-minded, and generous school. Shammai and his school defined something improper as meaning unchastity and nothing but unchastity. ‘Let a wife be as mischievous as the wife of Ahab,’ they said, ‘she cannot be divorced except for adultery.’ To the school of Shammai, there was no possible ground of divorce except only adultery and unchastity.

On the other hand, the school of Hillel defined something improper in the widest possible way. They said that it meant that a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner by putting too much salt in his food, if she went in public with her head uncovered, if she talked with men in the streets, if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband’s parents in his presence, or if she was troublesome or quarrelsome. Taking it even further, Rabbi Akiba said that the phrase translated here as, but she becomes displeasing to him meant that a man might divorce his wife if he found a woman whom he considered to be more attractive than her.

In a fallen and sinful world, it is not difficult to see that the school of Hillel found more backing and application in the area of divorce. As Jesus enters into the scene of Jewish life, divorce had become so easy and commonplace that women were becoming unwilling to marry as there was no security in the marriage bond.

Jesus is speaking in a practical sense to correct the warped interpretation of the school of Hillel. He begins with the phrase, “But I tell you.” He is correcting the interpretive mistakes prevalent in Jewish culture by reminding them that only marital infidelity is an acceptable reason for divorce. At the same time, He is not commanding divorce in these circumstances but allowing it if reconciliation could not be obtained between the husband and the wife. Jesus hates divorce and would always prefer repentance and restoration between the parties involved but also understands that in some cases, the hurt is too deep or that there may be unrepentant and continuing adulterous behavior from one of the spouses.

Jewish Law, as well as Greek and Roman, agreed that lawful divorce allows a person to remarry. Taken in this context, Jesus’ words allow remarriage for the non-offending party in a divorce based upon marital infidelity. All other reasons for divorce results in an adulterous relationship in a future marriage.

Jesus’ purpose is also not to cover every detail regarding divorce and remarriage. He was addressing a problem specific to first-century Israel. At the same time, He is directing them to understand the intention behind the Law. Just as verses 5:22 and 5:28 don’t prohibit all forms of anger or sexual desire verse 5:32 does not present every conceivable just or unjust grounds for divorce. Paul interprets it in this light as he presents a second legitimate grounds for divorce in 1 Cor 7:15  But if the unbeliever leaves, let him leave. A brother or a sister is not bound in such cases.

When viewing these two cases, it may be best to ask the question, “what do these two exceptions have in common?”

  • Both destroy at least one of the two fundamental components of marriage as described in Gen 2:24  This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh.
    • Leaving and cleaving (from parents to spouse).
    • Become one flesh in unity.
  • Both leave one party without any options if reconciliation is refused.
  • Both recognize the seriousness of divorce and that it should only be a last resort.
  • It is similar to ex-communication for unrepentant sinners.

I’m going to address one additional case not handled in Scripture, but that also destroys at least one of the two fundamental components of marriage. The additional case is the issue of an abusive relationship, unfortunately too common in society today. First, let’s try and define what an abusive relationship isn’t and what it is.

  • What it isn’t.
    • Plain, vanilla disagreement. Guess what? If you are married, you will have conflict. There is no such thing as a disagreement free marriage.
    • One spouse working long hours to provide for the family while the other is left to primarily take care of the house. Or even situations where both work long hours and the house becomes neglected.
    • Conflicts in values, especially if one is a Christian and the other isn’t. Of course, the Christian spouse should never be forced to compromise their Biblical values to meet the desires of the non-Christian spouse. Depending on the circumstances that could transition to “what is” abuse.
  • What it is.
    • Physical abuse. This has no place in a marriage.
    • Emotional/verbal abuse. This one can be muddied at times. I personally wouldn’t call “nit-picking” your spouse as emotional abuse, although it can be frustrating. Instead, berating, demeaning, or making your spouse feel less than a person created in God’s image is not ok. It is actually abuse towards God. I realize that I can’t and won’t cover every possible example, and some may not agree with I wrote under emotional abuse.
    • Sexual abuse. Yes, this can and does occur in marriage relationships. One spouse should never force themselves on the other. Sex is meant to be a beautiful joining of a man and woman.
    • Financial abuse. Depriving or controlling funds or keeping a separate account unknown to your spouse.
    • Digital abuse. In today’s social media environment, it is possible to abuse your spouse by posting unflattering texts or pictures.

I would encourage all married couples, or those about to be married, to read Ephesians 5:22-33. IF we would read and follow what is contained there, we wouldn’t have to worry about this area at all.

Now, how do we make applications from this passage?

  • If you are contemplating divorce, hit “pause.” Is the reason one of those listed above? If not, then divorce is not the biblical answer. If the reason is one of those listed above, first ask yourself an honest question, “have I done all that I can to reconcile the marriage?” If you answer “no,” then what more can you do? If you answer “yes,” then you have biblical grounds for divorce. It was never God’s design for this, but it does happen in a fallen world.
  • Are you friends with anyone who is in the situation described in the previous bullet? Talk to them about their issue, as much as they are willing to talk. You may be a facilitator to their reconciliation.
  • If you are already divorced, regardless of the reason, there is grace and forgiveness. For those who divorced under biblical grounds, whether you remarried or not, you should put aside any negative feelings you may have. Divorce can be excruciatingly painful, but it is not the end. For those who divorced outside of biblical grounds, repentance is needed, especially if you were the initiator for the divorce. This may also require you to apologize to your former spouse, even if they reject the apology.
  • We should also never lose sight of our identity. It is not in our jobs, neighborhood, or spouse. As a Christian, our identity is in Jesus. Our worth is found in Jesus. Our value is found in Jesus.
  • We would also do well to remember what Jesus told the woman caught in adultery in John 8:10-11  When Jesus stood up, He said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” No one, Lord,” she answered. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” Too often, the focus is on “Neither do I condemn you” instead of where it needs to be, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
  • The final application is if you have fallen short of Jesus’ instruction in these two verses, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

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