Church of Christ
Locks Cross Roads
11) Matthew 5 - Divorce
Matthew 5:31 whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement. See also Matthew 19:1-9.
In these few words Jesus practically cites all of the Mosaic legislation on the subject (Deuteronomy 24:1-4,
Deuteronomy 22:13-21). Observe that the only divine law that ever spoke on the subject of divorce did not
command it. Divorce was merely tolerated as representing men's yet unconverted hearts (Matthew 19:8) and was
regulated to prevent grosser inhumanities.
God hates divorce (Malachi 2:13-16), because one deals treacherously with his companion, the wife of his youth;
because one breaks the covenant he made with her before God; and because he shows his basic inhumanity by
casting her out and compelling her to cry out her troubles alone at God's altar. This heartbreak, loneliness, shame
and often destitution caused by "easy divorces" caused God to reject the worship of the Jews (Malachi 2:13).
Were Jesus merely clearing the rubbish of human traditions from the ancient Law against adultery, as many
assume, in order to show its deep and true spiritual meaning and restore the Seventh Commandment to its proper
observance, then why does not Jesus restore also the death penalty for unchastity, rather than suggest that a
woman divorced for any cause is made to be an adulteress when she marries another? The Old Testament Law
against adultery was clear in its definition of the death penalty to the adulterers (Deuteronomy 22:22, Leviticus
20:10). But He is not defending the Law, as misinterpreted by the scribes and Pharisees. Rather, He is picturing
true righteousness which is always a greater standard than legal righteousness. Jesus here completely removes
the necessity for the Law, by establishing a principle that thoroughly fulfills the intent of the Law.
The Law seemed to permit divorce "for any cause" (Matthew 19:3). The rabbis could not agree upon the exact
intent of the phrase: "if the wife does not find favor in his eyes, because he has found in her something shameful"
(Deuteronomy 24:1). Hillel's school interpreted it in the widest and most lax manner possible: literally for any cause.
Shammai adhered more strictly to the spirit of the law, his interpretation being "wantonness, lasciviousness,
lewdness" as the shameful things that the husband must find in his wife before he may divorce her, although he did
not include actual adultery since that was punished by death. A rabbi Akiba even allowed the finding a more
desirable woman as ample justification for divorcing the present wife. Such a lowering of the moral standards of
marriage probably affected the question of unfaithfulness to the point that even adultery because so commonplace
that it was regarded as an inconvenient and embarrassing social "mistake," rather than high treason against the
family. As a result, the ancient Law seemingly was not carried out (Hosea 4:14, John 4:18, Luke 7:36-50, Matthew
21:32). However, to assert that the Jews did not have the right to execute the death penalty proves nothing, since
they exercised the penalty when their conscience was sufficiently aroused (John 18:31 with Acts 7:58-59, Acts
26:10, note John 7:1 and 19 and 25, John 8:59, and John 10:31-33). The story of the adulteress brought to Jesus
(John 7:53 - 8:11) shows the conventions at the time.
Every one that putteth away his wife...maketh her an adulteress. Here the principle is stated regarding only the
man, but it is reversible (Mark 10:12). Because Jesus made only one exception to the general rule, His rule may be
stated as above: "Anyone who divorces his wife for any other excuse makes her an adulteress." But questions
immediately arise: how or in what sense does he make her an adulteress? Is she really considered by God to be
The phrase, translated by the American Standard Version "maketh her an adulteress," (poiei auten moicheutbenai)
is made dificult by the fact that the last word is a passive infinitive in form. The question for the translators is
whether the infinitive must be translated passively or whether it is the usual Greek translation for an active Hebrew
The Law (Deuteronomy 24:4) speaks of this second union as "defilement."
So what does this mean - don't get a divorce.
The one exception to the general rules described above is clearly stated twice by Jesus (Matthew 5:32, Matthew
19:9): "except for the cause of fornication." This is a general word used to mean any kind of unlawful sexual
relations, whether prostitution, unchastity, whoredom or premarital intercourse, The Law (Deuteronomy 22:20-21)
assumed the possible case of premarital infidelity, but death, not divorce, resolved the question, as in the case of
marital infidelity (Deuteronomy 22:22). But Jesus unequivocally teaches that a person may divorce his mate
because of their unfaithfulness. This, and only this, divorce is valid before God.
The sin of adultery does break the marriage vow of the adulterer, but not of the other partner; hence, the marriage
union is not yet severed. The union may only be ended by death or divorce, neither of which has yet occurred.
The injured mate has the right but not the obligation to terminate the marriage in divorce. If he is satisfied with the
genuineness of the adulterous partner's repentance, the marriage may be continued.
"What of the person whose divorce from his mate is recognized by God as valid? May he remarry?" For this
question the Lord has left no answer. Human wisdom says that since they are no longer married in any sense they
can get remarried. But then do you punish the guilty party? Do you want to take that chance that God will approve?