Thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount …
There is a lot of talk about marriage in the church. It is a constant subject in pulpits, books, blogs, and social media. Everyone has an opinion about marriage — from philosophers, to musicians, to politicians, to movie stars.
Through all of this talk, we are bombarded with several false myths:
- “Marriage exists to make you happy”
- “Everyone has the right to marry whomever they want“
- “Love is all you need”
- “You should leave when your partner no longer makes you happy”
- “Half of all marriages end in divorce” (this myth is refuted here)
Unfortunately, the church is often guilty of making things worse. We thunder at the evils of this world, whether it be a new celebrity scandal or the latest political attack from homosexual activists. We are quick to attack the broken world, yet we ignore the broken people that we pass by every day.
In the church, we are glad to lift up a happy, wholesome marriage, but we are too quick to shove them aside when problems arise. When a marriage starts to disintegrate into separation and divorce, we tend to fall to one of the two extremes: we either gloss over the issue, ignoring real problems, or we pronounce judgement on the victims, isolating them when they need us the most.
What does Jesus say about marriage? What does He say about divorce? How can we apply His commands in our broken world today?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been teaching that the law is more than a list of do’s and don’ts. The law is about having a real relationship with God himself (see here)! Using the examples of murder and adultery, he shows that the problem starts in our attitudes long before they show up in our actions.
Jesus then follows the example of adultery with showing how the law applies to marriage itself. There is no such thing as a casual separation. You are causing people to break God’s law when you end your marriage!
“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.
Note that Jesus did not talk about compatibility, nor did He talk about love or happiness. When you are committed to your husband or wife, you stay with it!
Jesus also spoke about marriage in greater detail in Matthew 19:
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.”
This command is also recorded in Mark’s gospel account:
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and 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.”
And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
Luke’s account also records a brief instruction about divorce:
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
These passages in scriptures have generated a lot of discussion, especially regarding when divorce is allowed, and when the divorced person is allowed to remarry. While these are all important topics, they are not the main point of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is saying that when there are problems in a marriage, leaving is not an option!
When we look closely at the expanded account in Matthew 19:3-9, we see the following:
God’s original plan for marriage: One man and one woman
Jesus said, “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’?” (Matthew 19:4-5)
Long before the law, God set the pattern for marriage. He “made them male and female”, and “the two shall become one flesh”. This was God’s original plan for marriage — one man and one woman.
Jesus quoted from Genesis 1:27, Genesis 2:24, and Genesis 5:2. This statement that marriage is between one man and one woman is also discussed in greater detail here.
Marriage was more than a relationship of two people coming together. God uses marriage in the Old Testament to picture His relationship with His people. He is always faithful, even when they are unfaithful (e.g. Isaiah 50:1).
This illustration is even more specific in the New Testament, showing that marriage is a picture of Jesus Christ and the church:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
“Maximizing your earthly happiness is not the goal of life or marriage. Maximizing your eternal happiness is, because God said, ‘Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame’ (Romans 5:3-5).” – John Piper 10
Marriage is for life
Jesus also said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:6).
God’s original plan for marriage is to be the unique relationship between a man and a woman, where they are joined together as one for life. They are joined together by God, and it is not for man to separate them.
Jesus’ answer about separation is, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate”. Marriage is for life!
This is illustrated in two Old Testament examples:
God used Hosea to illustrate His love for His unfaithful people. Hosea was commanded to marry an unfaithful prostitute, Gomer. When she turned from Him, he was to faithfully bring her back.
And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.” So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley. And I said to her, “You must dwell as mine for many days. You shall not play the whore, or belong to another man; so will I also be to you.
The second example is in Malachi. God uses Malachi to judge His people who are religious on the outside, but have turned from Him. God says that He no longer accepts their worship because they have divorced their wives.
And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.
“…when husbands and wives realize that this is God’s definition of marriage they would realize that a divorce would be like a man cutting off his leg because he had a splinter in it. Instead of dealing somehow to get the splinter out he amputates the whole leg.” – John MacArthur 5
See also this post here for excellent advice regarding Christian marriage.
Divorce is a concession, not a command
Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Matthew 19:8). God’s original plan was never for the husband and the wife to separate.
However, every marriage is made up of two broken, sinful humans, and there are times when that relationship will fail. When this failure is irreparable, God allowed for the process of divorce. But this was never part of God’s original plan.
The reference to Moses is from Deuteronomy 24:1-4. In Deuteronomy 24, the law required a certificate of divorce for a man who was divorcing his wife. This process protected the divorced wife, so that she would not be stoned as an adulteress when she remarried.
But by the time of Jesus, this law had become a mere formality. A man could easily divorce his wife for any reason provided that he could get a certificate of divorce. Jesus condemns this practice in His commands regarding marriage and divorce, saying that that was never God’s intent.
Even when there may be a valid cause for divorce, forgiveness and restoration, when possible, are always the best alternatives. The example of Hosea (above), shows that none of us are too wicked for God’s forgiveness. Likewise, we need to model this forgiveness in our own marriage.
In the New Testament, Paul addresses mixed marriages (between a believer and an unbeliever) in 1 Corinthians 7. His personal counsel is that believers should stay with their unbelieving spouse if it was possible:
1 Corinthians 7:12-16
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. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 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. 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. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
In a perfect world, there would never be conflict and marriages would never end. But in our broken world, God allowed a way to protect those who would go through the brokenness of a divorce.
“Jesus made it clear that this Mosaic law of divorce was a concession on God’s part. God’s original law of marriage left no room for divorce, but that law was laid down before man had sinned. Rather than have two people living together in constant conflict, with one or both of them seeking fulfillment elsewhere and thus commit sin, God permitted divorce. This divorce included the right to remarriage.” – Wiersbe 2
You are guilty of adultery when you divorce without a cause
Jesus then followed with one of the most controversial statements about marriage, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9), and “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 5:32).
Mark and Luke’s accounts further emphasis Jesus’ point:
And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
Jesus said that if you divorce your wife without just cause, you are guilty of adultery. Furthermore, you are not only guilty yourself, but you bear the guilt of your wife’s future marriage.
The m important point to emphasize here are that if you initiate a divorce without just cause, you bear the guilt for both of you! This point is emphasized in all five times in the Gospels where Jesus taught about divorce.
Note that remarriage was expected in all accounts. Jesus’ command was not directed to the victims of broken marriages and divorce. His warning was to the one initiating the divorce, “you are forcing them to sin”. Note that they are the ones who bear the guilt, not the husband or wife whom they sent away.
Note that Jesus’ warnings about marriage applies equally to a man or a woman.
It is not the place of this post to address all possible situations which may arise within a marriage of two broken, sinful people (as are all of us). I am only attempting to search through scriptures in order to explain the value that Jesus placed on marriage and what he taught about divorce. However, it is impossible to conclude a discussion such as this without addressing some very common questions.
The answers below are based on my understanding of what God says about marriage and divorce.
When is divorce acceptable?
In two of the five times that Jesus teaches about marriage and divorce, (Matthew 5 and Matthew 19), He teaches that you are guilty of divorcing your wife except on the ground of sexual immorality.
The Greek for sexual immorality is porneia (see here). 9 This is the broader term for any sexual sin, and is often translated as fornication. At its simplest level, any sexually immoral activity is grounds for divorce.
Therefore, according to Matthew’s accounts, Jesus expected that sexual immorality (porneia) within marriage to be acceptable cause for divorce. But there are good reasons to understand Jesus’ teaching about porneia to be broader than only sinful sexual activity, and not just a single “exception clause”:
- In the Old Testament, Israel was guilty of rampant idolatry, and was described as an unfaithful wife who deserved divorce (Isaiah 50:1, Jeremiah 3:8). These examples show that under the law, divorce was an expected consequence for unfaithfulness.
- Mark 10 and and Luke 16 both warn that you are guilty for divorcing your wife, but neither of these accounts add any exception. Jesus could not be inconsistent nor contradicting Himself (with Matthew’s accounts), so the acceptable reasons for divorce must have already been understood.
- The broader term for sexual immorality (porneia) is also used to describe non-sexual wickedness, such as idolatry or sensual indulgence (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:8, Hebrews 12:15-17).
- 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 teaches that a believing husband or wife should allow their unbelieving spouse to leave if they want out of the marriage. But this is not presented as a new exception to the rule, but rather it is given in terms of clarifying Jesus’ existing command. Paul is showing that divorce is allowed for an unbelieving spouse.
Therefore, we know that the New Testament teaches that sexual immorality and wickedness break a marriage and are causes for divorce. Believers should allow their unbelieving spouses to leave if they want a divorce.
It is important to note that we are all guilty at some point. We are all guilty before God (Romans 3:10-18), and Jesus taught that you are guilty of adultery if you have a lustful thought (Matthew 5:27-28, see here). But a marriage is not broken over a single failure. It is the persistent holding on to your sin, even when you know the truth that renders you guilty before God, and that is the failure that will destroy a marriage.
Jesus taught that breaking a marriage was against God’s plan and should only be broken when there was no hope of reconciliation. 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 teaches that reconciliation is the best option between two believers in a marriage, and that it is preferred for mixed marriages, when the unbelieving spouse wants to stay.
“Divorce is not required if restoration is an option.” – Wiersbe 2
For more information, see this article:
What about an abusive spouse?
I have seen criticism of Biblical studies on marriage and divorce when they do not address the situation of an abusive spouse. It is one thing to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation, but what about when there is real danger from a spouse?
I was once asked to participate in a forum for survivors of abuse. It is both humbling and disturbing to witness the levels of depravity and the horrors that the victims have had to face. There is no way that we can solve the horrific problems of life with “seven easy steps”.
If you, or someone you know, are suffering from an abusive spouse, I would counsel that God hates abuse, and has no tolerance for it. You need to leave the the abusive situation immediately and get Godly counsel.
God is clear about abuse. He hates all violence and oppression (Psalm 11:5, Isaiah 10:1-4, Isaiah 30:12-14, Jeremiah 9:7-9, Jeremiah 22:17). By contrast, true love is protecting and caring:
1 Corinthians 13:7
Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Is it wrong to leave an abusive spouse? First, divorce is clearly allowed if the spouse has been immoral or if the unbelieving spouse wants to leave (see above). But even for other cases, know that Moses, David, Elijah, and Paul all fled from danger. The first step is to get out of the dangerous situation.
But as shown above, it is more than simply a sexual violation that can end a marriage. The abusive spouse is showing a wickedness and a rebellion toward God that cannot be allowed within a marriage.
For more information, see these articles:
When is remarriage acceptable in God’s sight?
There is a lot of discussion regarding if the Bible allows remarriage after a divorce. But both Old Testament and New Testament teaching on divorce always expects remarriage.
In the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 gives the process in the law regarding a divorced wife. If a husband divorces his wife, he is to give her a certificate of divorce. When she remarries, she is not to go back to her original husband, because that bond has been permanently broken.
All of Jesus’ teaching on divorce expect that the wife will remarry after her husband divorces her. Note that in that culture, the divorced wife would often have no means to support herself, therefore she would need to either remarry or return to her parents. As shown above, Jesus’ teaching to the divorcing husbands is that they bear the guilt of the remarriage when they divorce without cause.
Even for the guilty spouse, neither divorce nor adultery is the unforgivable sin. Confess your sin to God when you are guilty (1 John 1:9), and attempt to reconcile with your spouse if it is at possible (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). Otherwise, “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). 8
For more information, see this article:
What about past divorce and remarriage?
Our broken relationships in the past can cause problems in our present lives. The issues of guilt and broken trust can interfere with our relationships long after the original problems have passed.
But as mentioned above, our responsibility to God is to confess our sins of the past and to look forward. Whether you are the guilty party or the victim in the broken relationships, God wants you to confess your sin, reaffirm your current relationships, and move forward.
Regardless of how you got to your current place, your current marriage is sacred and honorable to God once you are in it.
Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
For more information, see this article:
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References / Notes
 Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 5:17-48, pages 99-106
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 5:17-48, Pages 19-21
 H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 5, The Principles of the Kingdom, Part 1
 Stephen Davey, The Priority of Purity, Matthew 5:17-32, 5/19/1991
 John MacArthur, Divorce and Remarriage, Part 1, Matthew 5:31-32, 6/10/1979
 John MacArthur, Divorce and Remarriage, Part 2, Matthew 5:31-32, 6/17/1979
 John MacArthur, Divorce and Remarriage, Part 3, Matthew 5:31-32, 6/24/1979
 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1959-60, Chapter 24, Christ’s Teaching on Divorce, Matthew 5:31-32, pages 222-230
 Some Bible Scholars have taken a different interpretation of the passages in Matthew, saying that divorce is never acceptable under any circumstances. They show the difference in the greek words for adultery (moichos) and immorality (porneia, see here), and argue that the immorality must have occurred before marriage. However, the term porneia is a broader term, including both married people and singles. Therefore, Matthew’s combined use of both Greek words does not narrow down the possibilities (i.e. that the immorality only happened when you were single), but rather makes it broader. In essence, he is saying that any type of immoral action destroys the marriage. For more detail see  above.
 John Piper, Encouragement to those considering divorce: https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/to-a-spouse-considering-divorce
5 replies on “What did Jesus say about Marriage and Divorce?”
[…] Jesus follows the example of adultery with the example of divorce. Marriage is holy and honorable before God. It is not to broken by unfaithfulness, nor by divorce. Simple legal proceedings do not entitle you to separate from your spouse, and any such actions leave you guilty of both your own and your spouse’s unfaithfulness (see here). […]
[…] We are to resist the things that would damage a marriage and live in faithfulness (see here). […]
What did Jesus say about Marriage and Divorce? | Sapphire Sky
[…] You shall not commit adultery (Matthew 5:27-30). Jesus taught that a lustful glance makes you equally guilty, and that marriage was for life (Matthew 5:31-32). […]
[…] We show love when we show faithfulness in our marriage (Matthew 5:31-32) […]