The Apostle Paul’s Commentary on Jesus’ Divorce Argument Regarding the Legalism of the Jewish Religious Leaders in Matthew 19:8:
“19Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. 20Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is one. 21Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. 22But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 26For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus…4:30But what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be an heir with the son of the free woman’…5:1It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 3:19-26, 4:30 and 5:1)[underline mine].
My commentary on Paul’s commentary:
Paul teaches a clear chronological progression:
- The innocence of Adam and Eve
- The fall of Adam
- The promise of salvation
- The Law of God (Given to Moses on the mountain)
- The fullness of time when faith would come to God’s elect children through Christ Jesus.
Those who fail to understand this progression will frequently misconstrue many passages of scripture as is frequently done in Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees here in Matthew 19. In the beginning, prior to the fall, man had no need for the law. The Law came after the fall and it is in God’s Law where we find Moses’ (actually God’s) permission for divorce. Jesus alludes to “The innocence of Adam and Eve” in his statement, “…but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matthew 19:8). However, then came man’s fall into sin, which brought about the “hardness of men’s hearts”; another statement of our Lord’s from the same verse. This ‘hardness of heart’ problem made the law necessary until the fullness of time when faith came.
Jesus’ meaning in Matthew 19 cannot be accurately received by those who fail to put his statements in the context of this clear biblical progression. When the Pharisees reminded Jesus of Moses’ instructions to give wives a certificate of divorce and send them away, Jesus replied, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but…” Here Jesus referenced the period of time after the fall when the people of God were living under the Law. Jesus’ descriptive “hardness of heart” referred to the general obstinance of the Jewish people as being under the curse of the fall (as was the whole world at that time). Obstinate people do much harm to one another, which necessitated the mercy of divorce as a last resort for a person whose wicked spouse broke the conditions of their marriage covenant.
Many carelessly interpret our Lord’s use of “hardness of heart” to mean that the Jews stubbornly insisted upon the right of divorce until Moses (apparently against God’s will and Law) succumbed to their demands, and Jesus was taking the occasion of the Pharisees’ question to set the record straight and correct Moses’ ancient error. Such awful interpretations could not be further from the truth. Jesus was referring to the different periods of this progression to show the pharisees God’s original intent for marriage and then to show the Law’s provision for divorce as a merciful release from a wicked spouse. In so doing, Jesus was clear that the divorce laws were not given by God so that men could commit adultery every time their lustful eyes fell upon another woman. Verse 9, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Pinched between Jesus’ statements: “Because of your hardness of heart” and verse 9 which I just quoted at the end of the last paragraph, Jesus made reference to the time of innocence in the garden, “From the beginning it has not been this way” meaning that in a perfect world God’s intention for marriage was that it would have been a lasting, loving relationship. All relationships would be described this way in a sinless world, but because of the Fall we shall not experience such a world until heaven. Because of sin some people are so wicked that our only recourse is escaping them; thus God’s provision for divorce when those from whom escape is necessary are our spouses.
Those who attempt to interpret our Lord’s comments to the Pharisees here without the light provided by the chronological progression have brought untold harm to millions of people over the centuries–forcing them to remain in marriages with covenant breakers, forcing them to remain in unequally yoked marriages against the will and word of God.
So how would our Lord’s words be understood when the progression is not overlooked? Jesus is saying that God’s original creation of man was perfect and did not include the fall into sin; therefore, the allowance for divorce does not come from God’s pre-fall perfect world creation, but God made an allowance for it after the fall had taken place. Divorce was not the only divine allowance after the fall: punishment, including capital punishment, is another good example.
So then, in the perfect, sinless world in which God created man…the very state of the world Jesus refers to in this passage as “in the beginning” neither divorce nor capital punishment would be necessary, but after the fall into sin (a step further in the progression) mankind’s hearts had become hardened (fail to love God and their fellow man), and the whole Law including Moses’ permits for divorce and capital punishment became necessary.
Christians acknowledge the progression when it comes to capital punishment, but the “no divorce ever” Christians fail to recognize the same progression as it applies to their biblical understanding on divorce; thereby restricting divorce because their divorce view, unlike their capital punishment view, has never left the Garden of Eden.
Their doctrine on marital divorce fails to recognize the fall. Thus their doctrine treats the believer who engages upon a path to divorce as if it is them and not Adam who has fallen from God’s grace. Therefore, they apply Jesus’ “hard heartedness” statement to anyone who would seek a divorce from an evil, abusive spouse rather than applying it to the evil, abusive spouse. Clearly all should agree that the unrepentant, abusive spouse is the covenant breaking spouse, and the innocent spouse being abused needs the relief God offers in his permission to divorce.
Thanks be to God, the progression continues on to those who live by faith and not by works under the law; mainly New Testament saints but including the Old Testament saints such as Abraham. These have always been under the gracious instruction to remain separate from the world in order to avoid slipping into idolatry. No child of God is to be unequally yoked to the children of Satan in marriage or in any other relationship.
In conclusion, how are we to understand Jesus’ words, “What God has joined together let no man draw apart”? First, no man-made body such as a civil court or a presbytery has the right to change or wrongly interpret what God has said on the topic of divorce. Men must not prohibit where God permits, and men must not permit where God prohibits. Even Jesus said that he would not change the Law of God, nor would he give his church the right to do so. Secondly, both logically and biblically speaking, if God saves one spouse and leaves the other in a hard-hearted state, then it is not man but God who has separated the marriage partnership. This should be clearly understood by the fact that being unequally yoked is against the will of God (Literally scores of OT texts & many NT texts but especially 2 Cor. 6:14f). Therefore, it is safe to deduce that if God wanted a married couple to remain together beyond the temporary injunction (hoping for the redemption of the second spouse) in 1 Corinthians 7 , then God would redeem both spouses.
Finally, two saints married to one another should rarely, if ever, have need of divorce because they have progressed from being hard hearted to being of the faith in Christ Jesus. Having said this, it is important to note that many people (the majority sadly) call upon the name of Christ in vain, which is to say that they are Christian in name only. True believers will often find themselves unequally yoked to a marriage partner who swears allegiance to Christ while bearing neither the fruit of repentance nor the fruit of a genuine love of God. Such believers are simply unequally yoked, but many in the church will not recognize this reality and therefore cause such believers seeking relief through divorce great distress. To these believers I say to follow the word of God as it guides your conscience. People pleasing is a fools game. As Richard Baxter said, “If God’s approbation and favor quiet you not, nothing rationally can quiet you.”