Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce
The New Testament scriptures contain just two records of Jesus speaking on the subject of divorce. In the first instance (Matthew 5) divorce is one of six examples Jesus provides to make a much larger point in his Sermon on the Mount. The much larger point that our Lord was actually teaching is applicable to the entire law of God including the Mosaic provision allowing divorce. The second instance (Matthew 19) shows the Pharisees testing Jesus by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” The reader should understand that most of the religious leaders during the first century interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1-4 in such a way as to permit them to divorce their wives whenever they desired and to do so upon the flimsiest of excuses. In most cases these men were casting their wives aside solely because they had found other women whom they preferred. On both occasions Jesus did not teach a comprehensive doctrine of divorce. On the first occasion the reader will see that our Lord was demonstrating what the life of a Christian would look like, and on the second occasion Jesus was teaching against the religious leader’s abusive interpretation of God’s permit to divorce. A surprising number of biblical scholars throughout the centuries seem to have overlooked both of these important truths leading them to a false conclusion on the doctrine of divorce.
The Sermon on the Mount—Portion Found in Matthew 5:17-48
We shall now examine Jesus’ first mention of divorce in the context of what he is actually teaching in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. We are entirely indebted to D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ great book entitled, “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount” chapter twenty for the understanding that we have obtained. Divorce is one of six examples that Jesus uses to teach a very significant Christian principle. Jesus begins this section by making it abundantly clear that the law continues its function into the Christian era. In regards to the law Jesus says, “I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Immediately he adds, “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” He then warns Christians of every era not to annul even the least of the commandments for to do so would cause one to be called least in the kingdom of heaven. And those who teach God’s laws rightly shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. The sad reality throughout the Christian era is that it has been nearly universally taught that Jesus annuls the Mosaic provision for divorce. Our forefathers were neither brazen nor foolish enough to use the word “annul”, but the doctrine they espoused on divorce, which they obtained from Jesus’ statement on these two occasions, effectively annuls the Mosaic provision for divorce.
Then in verse 20 Jesus introduces the doctrine of righteousness, which is the topic of this portion of his sermon—the very topic or doctrine for which our Lord provides a most useful principle. In verse 20 Jesus also mentions those who have been operating outside of this principle, the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus authoritatively asserts that these will not enter the kingdom of heaven. As antagonists of truth, they interpreted God’s laws in such a way as to appeal to their own desires. Jesus, through the use of six examples, provides the divine interpretation of God’s laws over and against that of the scribes and Pharisees. We cannot hope to understand Jesus’ view on divorce without first grasping the principal for which He chose these six examples of the Law.
In Martyn Lloyd Jones’ Own Words
“The first thing we must consider is the formula which He uses: ‘Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time’. There is a slight variation in the form here and there, but that, essentially, is the way in which He introduces these six statements. We must be perfectly clear about this. You will find that certain translations put it like this: ‘Ye have heard it was said to them of old time”. On purely linguistic grounds no one can tell whether it was ‘by’ or ‘to’ for, as usual, when you come to matters of linguistics, you find the authorities are divided, and you cannot be sure. Only a consideration of the context, therefore, can help us to determine exactly what our Lord meant to convey by this. Is He referring simply to the law of Moses, or is He referring to the teaching of the Pharisees and scribes? Those who would say it should read ‘to them of old time’ obviously must say that He is referring to the law of Moses given to the fathers; whereas those who would emphasize the ‘by’, as we have it in the Authorized Version, would say that it has reference to what was taught by the scribes and Pharisees. It seems to me that certain considerations make it almost essential for us to take the second view, and to hold that what our Lord is really doing here is showing the true teaching of the law over against the false representations of it made by the Pharisees and the scribes. You remember that one of the great characteristics of their teaching was the significance which they attached to tradition. They were always quoting the fathers. That is what made the scribe a scribe; he was an authority on the pronouncements which had been made by the fathers. These had become the tradition. I suggest, therefore, that the verses must be interpreted in that way. Indeed, the wording used by our Lord more or less clinches the matter. He says: ‘Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time.’ He does not say ‘you have read in the Law of Moses’, or ‘It was written and you have read’.”
To compound the matter, “The children of Israel during their captivity in Babylon had ceased to know the Hebrew language. Their language when they came back, and at this time, was Aramaic. They were not familiar with Hebrew so they could not read the law of Moses as they had it in their own Hebrew Scriptures. The result was that they were dependent for any knowledge of the law upon the teaching of the Pharisees and the scribes. Our Lord, therefore, very rightly said, ‘Ye have heard’, or ‘That is what you have been hearing; that is what has been said to you; that is the preaching that has been given to you as you have gone to your synagogues and listened to the instruction.’ The result was that what these people thought of as the law was in reality not the law itself, but a representation of it given by the scribes and Pharisees…and it was almost impossible at this time to tell which was law and which was interpretation.”
So then, this portion of Jesus’ Sermon teaches a principle that will help Christians live holy and righteous lives, and it cannot be said too frequently that our Lord is unquestionably not providing six new laws for Christians to follow. Lloyd-Jones makes the case that men love to follow simple, direct codes of conduct. They ask, ‘what is the bare minimum that I must do in order to be made right with God?’ For this reason institutions like the Roman Catholic Church are so popular. Catholicism says receive the seven sacraments, through the intermediary of the priest, continue in the seven sacraments and all will be well. The outcome is that Catholic people know little about the word of God, know next to nothing about doctrine and, most tragically, know nothing whatsoever of God as He has revealed Himself in the word. They have superstitious notions of God without the benefits of a relationship and without understanding all that He has revealed in His word and through His Spirit. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “Let us once and for all get rid of the idea that our Lord came to set up a new law, or to announce a new code of ethics…It (Sermon on the Mount) is not meant to be a detailed code of ethics; it is not a new kind of moral law which was given by Him.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus revealed the essence of the new man. A new race was being created, and the members of that race would be of the essence that Jesus portrayed in the Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus’ Single Principle in Matthew 5:17-48
Dear reader, focus upon the principle that our Lord teaches in this text using the same method in which He taught it as He contrasted His divine interpretation with the religious leaders’ letter of the law interpretation. Consider first the interpretation of God’s law by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.
Sadducees’ and Pharisees’ interpretation of the law:
- Adjust one’s life to the letter of the law or interpret the letter of the law to fit one’s life.
- The law was provided to restrict the actions of men.
- The law prohibits men from doing certain things.
- The purpose of the law is to keep men in a state of obedience to oppressive rules.
- The Law is an end in itself. One to which men must strictly adhere.
Now juxtapose alongside the religious leader’s interpretation the interpretation of the Lord Jesus as presented through His use of the six examples found in Matthew 5:21-48.
Christ’s principle in five segments:
- It is the spirit of the law that matters primarily, not the letter only.
- Conformity to the law must not be thought of in terms of actions only. Thoughts, motives and desires are equally important.
- The purpose of the law is not merely negative, but positive: To lead us to do and love righteousness.
- The purpose of the law is to promote the free development of our spiritual character.
- The Law is a means to the ultimate end of coming to know God.
The contrast could not be sharper, on the one hand are the legal minds of Israel determining the letter of the law. Then they declare themselves blameless as to the righteousness which is in the Law. They then assumed the moral authority to lord it over all those who depend upon them for reading and interpreting the Hebrew text. On the other hand, Jesus demonstrates how the law of God promotes the free development of spiritual character bringing sinners into relationship with God. Unfortunately Christians frequently take the path of least resistance by falling into the same ruts as the Israelites. Since Jesus used six examples to demonstrate his principle many have turned them into additional laws that must be followed to the letter. In other words, instead of comprehending Jesus’ principle and adhering to it, they have continued a letter of the law approach and added six more laws.
Jesus was saying once Bunyan’s Pilgrim has been loosed from his burden, then he will be free to repent of sin, which is shown to him by the law, and draw near to God. But most of the church heard Jesus say if Bunyan’s Pilgrim can successfully add the additional burden of six more laws to his pack he may someday earn favor with God. Lloyd-Jones said, “Let us once and for all get rid of the idea that our Lord came to set up a new law, or to announce a new code of ethics.” Jesus came to establish a new kingdom. He was the first of a new race of people. He promised that members of this race would be of a certain type. They would have a certain character. They would behave differently from the rest of the world. The six examples were nothing more than examples of what a genuine believer would look like.
The Six Examples
Example One: The natural man is content to abstain from murder; Jesus is saying that the new man will strive to be at peace with all men.
Example Two: The natural man tries not to sleep with another man’s wife; Jesus says the new man will not look upon any woman with lust in his mind.
Example Three: The natural man says I will try to be fair in my marital divorce from my wife; Jesus says the new man will love and cherish all people but especially their spouse so that divorce would be the furthest thing from anyone’s mind, yet in following God’s Law the new man would not keep company with a covenant breaker.
Example Four: The natural man says you can trust my word if I have sworn by one greater than myself; Jesus says that those who are of the new creation will speak the truth always and will be known by their integrity.
Example Five: The natural man says an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; Jesus says the new man will not seek retribution to those who have persecuted them. They will not act in a vengeful way.
Example Six: The natural man says I love my neighbor and hate my enemy; Jesus says that the new creation will be known by their love for their enemies and those who persecute them.
Conclusions Drawn from Matthew 5
Jesus could not have been abdicating a Mosaic law (negative or positive) because He opened this portion of the Sermon on the Mount saying He did not come to abolish any of the Law.
Jesus’ words discussing marital divorce cannot, in good conscience, be used to change what the rest of scripture says about marital divorce. His comments on divorce were nothing more than one of six examples to demonstrate how Christians (the new man) would live differently than the natural man.
Honest scriptural interpretation recognizes that Jesus did not here provide a divorce doctrine nor was one necessary. Those who use the words of the Lord to deny the legitimate use of God’s divorce provision should be ashamed. Our Lord’s exact words uphold the Mosaic Law permitting marital divorce.
Matthew 19: Jesus’ Second Occurrence Speaking on Divorce
As mentioned earlier Matthew provided a second record of the Lord Jesus speaking on the doctrine of divorce. In the third through twelfth verses of Matthew 19 a group of Pharisees attempted to test Jesus on the concession for divorce found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. It is difficult to know what they hoped to achieve in asking this question. The religious leaders at that time were split on the issue of divorce. The liberal perspective permitted divorce for literally any reason at all following the school of Hillel. Hillel’s counterpart was a man by the name of Shammai. Shammai held that the law allowed divorce only in severe cases especially when adultery was involved. Perhaps they merely wanted to see which side of the debate Jesus took.
Regardless of their agenda, the Pharisees’ inquisition brought about this occasion of our Lord’s speaking on the subject of divorce, and the context is entirely different from Matthew 5. In both instances Jesus sets the record straight by providing His interpretation of the biblical statements on divorce over and against the interpretations of those from the Hillel school, which were very popular among the Israelites. The popular Israeli view was also the current Greco-Roman view, so nearly the entire culture held a divorce for any reason position.
It is likely that the particular group of Pharisees questioning Jesus was of the Hillel school because they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” So then, Jesus is specifically addressing the “Divorce is permissible for any reason at all” position of the Hillel school. In His reply in Matthew 19 we find Jesus focused upon a single law whereas His focus in Matthew’s fifth chapter was upon the whole law. It should not surprise anyone which law our Lord focused upon, but I fear that many will, at least initially, be surprised. Jesus is focused upon the second of the two great commandments: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
The religious leaders who adopted the liberal Hillel view of divorce were men who used the oppression of weaker groups to their own advantage, and they did so because of the hardness of their hearts. These were men who oppressed their own wives just as the priests, their predecessors, had done in the days of the prophet Malachi.
“Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But not one has done so who has a remnant of the Spirit…Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. ‘For I hate divorce’, (Lit. sending away) says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘and him who covers his garment with wrong,’ says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously’” [Parenthesis mine] (Malachi 2:14-16).
It was Jesus who said, “A new commandment I give to you that you love one another.” He also taught that all who loved Him would obey Him. Then, in Matthew 19, Jesus addresses the unloving, hard heartedness of these religious leaders who claim to obey the law, but in actuality have reduced the law to a mere letter all the while hating rather than loving one another. God called this behavior treacherous throughout the Old Testament. Specifically in Malachi and in Matthew God is saying that those who deal treacherously with others do not have the Spirit of God. Why? The answer is found in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which we have considered in some depth above. The Christian, new creation or new man, WILL love others. They are a new race of humanity unlike any who have gone before. Multitudes of imposters exist but genuine Christians will forever be wholly different from the natural man who continues enslavement to sin and death. The remnant of sin remains, but the new man will not be hard hearted, he will not be treacherous and he/she would not divorce their spouse except in cases where the spouse is devoid of the Spirit of God, has the unbelieving hardness of heart and is treacherous with others. Such behaviors elicited God’s permit or provision for divorce.
So then, divorcing a treacherous spouse is a biblically mandated permit/concession/provision for the innocent spouse. In such cases no guilt should be cast upon the innocent believer seeking divorce from their treacherous spouse. These must not be treated as second class Christians or deemed unbelieving and unrepentant. God forbid. God loves them enough to provide a way of escape, and it is way past time for the church to grasp this biblical concept as well. Finally, when the treacherous spouse tries to use God’s provision in his/her treachery they must know that they are guilty of adultery. They are guilty of a failure to love even their own wife or husband. These need to repent and believe. May the grace of God be shown in their hearts.