Divorce and the Sanctity of Marriage - Matthew 5:31-32

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What does the Bible say about marriage, divorce and remarriage? In a world where marriage is often avoided or minimized and divorce is often normalized and even praised it is important that we consider how God would have us think about these significant matters.

As we come to this passage, we must acknowledge that for many people this topic is very personal. Almost everyone has been impacted in some way, directly or indirectly by divorce. For some the topic elicits reminders of the some of the hardest moments of life. Thankfully, as Christians we know that Jesus came to bring grace and forgiveness for all who have sinned and hope and restoration for all who have been sinned against.

The Context – A Righteousness of the Heart

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is teaching what it looks like to live as the people of God. What becomes abundantly clear is that God’s standard is much different than the standard of the scribes and Pharisees.

In Matthew 5:21-48 Jesus offers six examples contrasting the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees and the true law of God. What’s clear is that the righteousness of God is a righteousness of the heart and it goes far beyond the lines and parameters of the religious leaders. Further, we can never perfectly live up to God’s standard – but instead He gives those who are His new hearts – hearts that hunger and thirst for true righteousness.

In 5:31-32 Jesus gives the third of His six examples – this time contrasting the scribes and the Pharisees’ understanding and application of divorce with God’s true standard.

The Teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees on Divorce (5:31)

  • In the days of Jesus it was commonly taught that divorce was permissible for almost any reason. The scribes and the Pharisees used Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as a proof text for their standard. However, Jesus points out that this law wasn’t given as a positive command, but as a concession because of sin (the hardness of the hearts). His purpose was to show that the aim of the Deuteronomy passage is not to make divorce permissible but to limit sinfulness and to control its consequences. This ‘case law’ doesn’t reflect God’s ideal for His people but is a response to the people’s sin. 

The Teaching of Jesus on Divorce - The consequences of divorce and remarriage (5:32)

  • In contrast to the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus teaches that those who break the covenant of marriage and marry again commit adultery. It’s a strong teaching that reinforces how highly God values marriage. God designed and instituted marriage and He calls us to take that institution seriously.

The Exception Clause – God’s compassionate allowances (5:32)

  • While it is clear that God’s intention is the permanence of marriage, in verse 32 Jesus offers sexual immorality as an exception to the requirement that marriage should be lifelong. If a person is sinned against in this way divorce is allowed, although not required.
  • A second allowance in found in 1 Cor. 7:12-15 where Paul says that if a Christian has an unbelieving spouse who leaves the marriage, the believing spouse can be freed from the marriage and even allowed to remarry. It should also be noted that those who enter a second marriage sinfully do not remain in an ongoing state of sin. After repenting the marriage should not be thought of as an ongoing act of adultery and it should be maintained in a way that honors God.

God’s Design and Intention for Marriage (Matthew 19:3-6) 

  • As a means of explaining God’s disapproval of divorce Jesus appeals to the design and intention of marriage. Quoting from Genesis 1:26-27 and 2:23-25 Jesus recalls the purpose of God in regard to marriage.
  • Marriage is rooted in creation – Appealing to Genesis Jesus recalls that marriage was planned and established by God for the good of His people. He created it and He is the One who should define its’ use. 
  • Marriage is the making of one from two – Marriage is more than a legal agreement or joint partnership. It’s unlike any other relationship, when we are joined in marriage we become one flesh.
  • Marriage is a work of God – While we perceive marriage as something we form and govern, the Scriptures reveal that when we are married we are joined together by God.
  • Marriage is meant to be for a lifetime – According to Scripture neither man nor woman controls marriage, but God. He is the authority over marriage: what God has joined together, let man not separate.

Application - As the people of God we should be the first to herald that marriage is a good gift from God, for the good of people, and we should strive to see marriage honored and received according to God’s design.