Video Uploaded: .
The Life of Jesus - Series 4: Episode 7

Marriage and divorce

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 5:31-32

Jesus endorses marriage and challenges, not only the Jewish society of his day, but modern society, too. Divorce is permitted for the disciple for two reasons only.

Jesus endorses marriage and challenges, not only the Jewish society of his day, but modern society, too. Divorce is permitted for the disciple for two reasons only.


Hello and welcome to Series 4 and Episode 7. This is ‘Marriage and Divorce’ and we are in the Sermon on the Mount. We're going to take a very short section today - Matthew 5:  31 and 32. The topic is a very significant one: marriage and divorce. This is not the only time Jesus deals with this topic but it's the first time he deals with it, and his statements are simple and clear and challenging.

Introduction and Recap

Before that let me remind you of the context. If you've been following previous episodes in Series 4, you'll know that our topic in this series is the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew chapters 5 to 7 with equivalent passages in Luke chapter 6, which we're drawing on to some extent, but we're based mostly in Matthew chapters 5 to 7. The thing to remember is that the Sermon on the Mount is addressed particularly to followers of Jesus, or disciples. It's not addressed to all of humanity or all people; it's giving a framework for living for those who follow Jesus. We start with the Beatitudes - the ‘beautiful attitudes’ - the attitudes of the Kingdom and Jesus then teaches on the fulfilling of the Law - the fact that he's not abolishing the Old Testament Law but he's bringing it to fulfilment; it's coming to mean something different. He will take examples in different sections - like the one we're looking at today - of something said in the Old Testament, interpreted by the Jews of the time, in a certain way and then he'll reinterpret it for the Kingdom of God.

The immediate passage before, in the last episode, is linked to this one so I'm going to re-read it again. Not because we're going to discuss the subject, but it's about adultery and you may want to review the last episode to be reminded of the things we said about it. The last episode and this one are dealing with profound and significant aspects of sexual ethics and it's very important to remember that sexual ethics are at the forefront of Christian teaching. Right from the very beginning, Jesus proposed a way of living for Christians that had very clear sexual ethics and sexual morals - for single people and for married people. These sections in the Sermon on the Mount begin to lay out some of these principles which are developed later on in Jesus' teaching and then in the epistles, particularly the epistles of Paul later on.

Let's read the previous passage, to remind ourselves of the context. We're not talking yet about marriage and divorce but this is the immediate context:

27“You have heard that it was said,(verse 27 of Matthew 5)‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”’

Matthew 5:27-30, NIV

These are really sobering words and we studied them carefully in Episode 6. We realised that Jesus was using exaggerated language here to make a point; he was using a way of speaking that makes the point you have to be radical in dealing with sexual lust and the temptation to sexual sin. He prohibits adultery and challenges lustful attitudes from one person to another - particularly, in this context, men towards women. That's the thing that he's spoken of immediately beforehand. You can see Jesus is radical. Christian discipleship is radical; sexual ethics is one of the key areas where its radical cutting-edge is important.


Now we come to the question of divorce. Divorce is a very important issue in all cultures; people have strongly held opinions about it. There are different rules and regulations about it in different cultures. Let's read what Jesus has to say to start with, Matthew 5: 31- 32

31“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”’

Matthew 5:31-32, NIV

We need to set the context before we can possibly know what this may mean and how we can apply it. Let's just think about Jewish culture at the time. Marriage was, amongst the Jews, between one man and one woman - monogamy, not polygamy - that's the first thing to be clear about. Secondly, marriage was between consenting adults. Child brides and children's marriages were not conducted in Judaism although people got married very young (compared with some modern societies) but that was because they took on adult responsibilities earlier than they sometimes do in developed societies; parents were often involved, some marriages were arranged, or partly arranged. This was characteristic of their society as it is with many traditional societies today. Divorce was common and, in fact, in the time of Jesus there had been the development of a culture of easy divorce and this easy divorce was justified on the grounds of the particular passage that Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament.

Old Testament Background

The passage is in the book of Deuteronomy 24 : 1 - 4, which we're going to read in a moment. That passage tells us that there was a regulation about what people could do when they had divorced their wives, whether they were allowed to re-marry them or not. We're going to comment on that passage, then comment on how it was used by the Jews, and then comment on what Jesus did in reinterpreting it. It's a little complex but it's very important to understand. So here's the passage, Deuteronomy 24, verses 1 to 4:

1If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2and if after she leaves his house,she becomes the wife of another man, 3and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to (re)marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance.’

Deuteronomy 24:1-4, NIV

This seems quite an obscure passage but it is, basically, describing a pattern of fairly easy divorce which the Jews conducted for much of the Old Testament period, where certificates of divorce were given almost always by men, in their culture, on the grounds of something that they didn't like about their partner. In Deuteronomy, Moses is commenting on this but the rule he gives is the rule that a man who has divorced a woman isn't allowed to remarry her later on in these circumstances. That's the rule. The interesting thing is that, in the case of Matthew 5, that particular passage has been corrupted by the Jews in the way that they express what the book of Deuteronomy says and so Jesus says, (verse 31) ‘“It has been said anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce,”’ as if to say that that is God's command. Just “Here's the method of divorcing your wife. God says it, you can carry on and do it” - that's the implication of the way that passage was used but if we look at it in its original context, that's not what it says. It doesn't encourage divorce; it describes it. All it does is prevent a certain type of remarriage in that particular context. That's what the Law says and so the way that particular statement from the book of Deuteronomy had been used by Jews of the time, corrupted its original meaning and opened the door for easy divorce, initiated by men, who were allowed to divorce their wives for even trivial matters. Jewish history says to us that sometimes it was to do with the fact that they didn't like the way they cooked, or some practical thing in the house, let alone anything more serious.

This is interesting: Jesus is now going to challenge the way they corrupted the Old Testament and we also need to know that this particular regulation isn't carried forward into the New Testament anyway. There are very few laws from the Old Testament that are carried through to the New Testament. We discussed this in an early episode where we looked at how Jesus fulfils the Law (Matthew 5: 17 onwards) and you can review that episode if you want to be clear about that. The basic principle is that these types of laws were not carried forward. There are one or two fundamental principles and laws that were carried forward: for example: you shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not bear false witness,; you love your neighbour as yourself; and you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Some of these laws from the Old Testament are specifically incorporated into Christian ethics by Jesus or the Apostles. If they are, they become ours, as Christians, but almost all of the Law of Moses was not carried forward - including this passage - it was not carried forward; therefore, whatever it meant in the original context doesn't matter so much to us because it's not applicable to us anyway. This is the context and Jesus corrects the misuse of Deuteronomy 24: 1, as a pretext for easy divorce. He makes it clear that this is a misuse of the Old Testament and not the path of Christian discipleship and then he moves in the opposite direction, by indicating his own ruling on divorce:

Jesus' Teaching

‘“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”’

Matthew 5:32, NIV

Here is a defining verse of immense importance to Christians. We can forget about the Deuteronomy 24 discussion; it's now historical. That law doesn't apply, but what does apply are the clear, direct teachings of Jesus. He says, addressing himself initially to men in this context, that divorce for disciples is not permitted. When they are Christian disciples - when you and I are Christian disciples - our marriage commitment is part of our discipleship. He only gives one exceptional circumstance, that exceptional circumstance is described here as ‘sexual immorality.’ Usually this means adultery; the word, more broadly, means any sexual relationship with any other person, other than your married partner. It describes a specific sexual relationship and in that context Jesus permits the innocent party to divorce the guilty party and, thereby, to be free in future to remarry. He even suggests, here, that the divorced person who is guilty should not be quickly remarried to another person, as if to forget about the events that have happened in the past. This is a very challenging teaching and what Jesus does here sets the pattern for the whole of the New Testament, whereby Jesus and Paul (and other writers as well) set very high standards of Christian relational and sexual ethics in the Church, even though they're totally different from, and higher than, their surrounding cultures.

Let me give two examples. The first one is what we are talking about here, the prevailing Jewish society into which Jesus was speaking, was fairly relaxed about easy divorce. Jesus said, “That is not the way of Christian discipleship; we are going to do it differently; it's only sexual immorality that allows for divorce.” When Paul speaks into the world of the Romans and the Greeks, where he was operating later on; where, for example, homosexual relationships were tolerated and accepted as fairly normal and where multiple sexual partners were accepted; where powerful men were allowed to sexually engage with slaves in their households; all those kinds of things were commonplace and widely accepted amongst most Romans and Greeks. Paul set himself firmly against all of them: against practising homosexual relationships, against adultery, against sexual relationships outside marriage, and he set the standard very high. Both Jesus and Paul mark the Church out as fundamentally different from the prevailing society, in terms of its sexual ethics and this question of divorce is a very good example of that.


In order to understand this passage effectively, I want to go through, very carefully, some statements and explanations that set this very challenging teaching in the widest possible context to help you understand it and interpret it effectively. The first thing I want to say, by way of reflection: Jesus puts a very high value on marriage, both here and elsewhere. In doing so, by the way, he sets himself against casual sexual relationships and what many modern people describe as ‘living together’ - a committed sexual relationship without formal marriage - that would be unthinkable to Jesus and to the Early Church because marriage was seen as a public declaration, not a private arrangement.

The second thing is that commitment to marriage was seen by Jesus as a lifelong partnership and as foundational to Christian discipleship. If you're a follower of Jesus, the investment in your marriage is one of the most important things that you can do to keep that marriage healthy and strong. We have to say that Jesus is addressing disciples, so it would be obvious that many people who've become believers and disciples have, before they believed, entered into immoral relationships, marriages that have broken down into divorce, and other types of difficult relationships. This is not suggesting that we go back to those relationships and try and rebuild them because, when we come to Christ and are forgiven, then our past is forgiven and we are completely forgiven for those relationship breakdowns - which may include divorce. Bearing in mind Jesus is here speaking not to unbelievers but to disciples, he's saying, “If you have a Christian faith and you're married, then divorce is regulated very clearly by my teaching and you can't just opt out of your marriage if it's inconvenient or painful or difficult.”

We also need to add in the fact that Paul the Apostle, later on, comments on the question of divorce and separation and marriage in one of his letters (1 Corinthians 7) and he outlines a second circumstance in which the Christian disciple is permitted to allow their marriage to come to an end. That's if they are married to a non-Christian and the non-Christian initiates a divorce because they don't want to be married to a believer or a disciple, a follower of Jesus. Paul says, in this case, we're free to allow them to leave and we're not under any further obligation in that case - which implies the permission to remarry. However, we know that there are other circumstances where marriage gets into difficulty that are not mentioned here and I'm going to come to those in a moment. Jesus comes back to the topic of marriage and divorce in more detail in another account (the fullest one of which is in Matthew: 19, from the beginning of the chapter onwards) where he's asked a question that provokes him to give a very fundamental explanation about marriage and divorce, and also about singleness. We'll come to that later on in our studies, but I would like you to reflect on that passage and think about it, if this is a matter that is important to you. I want to link it together in your mind. The passage is Matthew 19: 1 - 12, and his statement about divorce is in verse 9 - I'll read it to give you a comparison. Matthew 19: 9:

‘“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”’

Matthew 19:9, NIV

That's a very similar statement to the one we've got here but there's more explanation in that context and we will study it later on in our teaching.

We're left with a challenging question which Jesus does not address: what happens if you're in a marriage where something severely goes wrong that is not involving either of the two conditions for divorce that are permitted specifically in the New Testament (one being sexual immorality of the other person, and the other being that you're married to a non-Christian who decides to leave you and they initiate the process?) Those are the two things that were specifically described. What about domestic violence? What about sexual abuse? What about financial negligence? What about verbal abuse? What about the breakdown of the relationship, and the lack of interest in continuing the relationship? All these things are commonplace in marriages. What is Jesus' position on this? What is the Christian ethical position on these issues? None of them are explicitly described in the New Testament, but we do have one very important clue to help us understand what might happen in these cases and that clue comes in 1 Corinthians 7: 10 - 11, where Paul is addressing some circumstances of marriage difficulties (and it's part of the passage that I've referred to concerning the unbeliever and the believer been married together in the unbeliever initiating a divorce). But a slightly different circumstance is described in 1 Corinthians 7, verses 10 to 11:

‘To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord - meaning Jesus - A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.’

1 Corinthians 7:10-11, NIV

Paul takes as strong a position on divorce as Jesus; divorce is not permitted except for these two exceptions and he's making a general rule here. Divorce is not permitted - don't just separate for other reasons. Interestingly enough, in verse 11 he describes a circumstance where that divorce has taken place already - so some Christians just divorce from their partners because of a crisis, or a difficulty, or the relationship not having any meaning any more - and Paul knows that's happening already and he describes it here and he then gives guidance to that person: ‘if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband.’ If some extreme circumstance, unrelated to sexual immorality, or having a non-Christian partner as such, but some other extreme circumstance or difficult circumstance, causes you to separate or divorce, what should you do? Paul gives a clear command: remain unmarried. In other words, don't move on to another relationship because that marriage still is significant in God's eyes as part of your discipleship, even though it's apparently ended. Stay single or else - and this is the goal - be reconciled. The Church needs to help in that process of reconciliation. Temporary separation, with a desire and a commitment to rebuild the marriage, is the path of Christian discipleship that Paul suggests in that passage and I add it in here simply because it's difficult to interpret the passage in Matthew 5,31 - 32, fully and effectively in isolation from some of the other key New Testament texts (and the two key ones that I think you need to have in mind are Matthew 19, as I mentioned, and 1 Corinthians 7).

Where does this leave us? Some people reading this will feel very challenged, very uncomfortable, feeling that their own life as a Christian has not met up to these standards for some reason; others of us may feel overwhelmed by the high standard that Jesus sets. I want to encourage you to take seriously the commands of Jesus and to orientate your life around them, whatever the cost, because marriage can be a costly business in some circumstances. If you've been divorced for reasons, as a believer, related to the ones permitted in scriptures that I've mentioned (the two I've mentioned) then you should have no guilt about the fact that divorce has taken place and that you've moved on and perhaps you've remarried. For those of us who have allowed or decided that our marriage relationships are coming to an end for other reasons, I would encourage you to reflect on 1 Corinthians 7:10 to 11 - Paul specifically deals with this question.

My overall conclusion is the Sermon on the Mount, in many ways, is immensely challenging. Christian discipleship is a revolutionary way of life. It views relationships fundamentally differently from others; it views marriage as a lifelong, covenantal relationship - not a contract or a commitment, or a serial relationship which you can replace with someone else when it's inconvenient to continue it. Saying these things, I know they go against Western culture and many other cultures in the world - even some very religious cultures which permit divorce for all sorts of reasons, especially for the powerful. It's the ‘powerful’ that Jesus is addressing here, because men had that power far more than women in the Jewish society of the time and Jesus said to those men, “You can't use that power to divorce people at whim if you're my followers.” The Christian Church should be characterised by a tremendous commitment to marriage and the commitment of the Church community to support people who are married - if they are experiencing difficulties, this should not be a private issue with no help, no support, from the Church leaders and the Church community; these difficulties happen, frequently, and we need to help each other.

As we continue down this journey of the Sermon on the Mount, yet again we're faced with the fact that following Christ is a life of self-sacrifice. It's also a life of immense fulfilment because to give up our life for him leads us to, what he describes elsewhere, as ‘abundant life.’ It's a paradox; it's a mystery: you give up selfish ambitions, follow him and blessing comes - and that can happen through our families and, particularly, in our marriage relationship. If you are married and you're reading this, and you're struggling with your marriage relationship for some reason, I want to encourage you to invest in that marriage: pray to God for help; love your partner; be faithful to your partner; and seek to follow the ethics - the sexual ethics and relational ethics - Jesus has given to us, and doing so you will be salt and light in your community. The Church is most effective when it is seen to be distinct in its ethical behaviour and many of those ethical areas are described here, in the Sermon on the Mount. When we get to our next episode, when we deal with the making of oaths and swearing and promising things and how we speak, we find another really challenging area that's very counter-cultural. I hope I see you for that episode in due course.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What are your opinions about marriage?
  • Discipleship
    1. Pray for Christian marriages known to you, to remain strong and be a good influence on your society.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. To what extent does knowing the background to these statements help you to understand what Jesus is promoting in terms of relationships?
    2. How does Christian teaching found in the Gospels, and Paul’s letters, about relationships, marriage and divorce differ from your society?
Created by Word Online