Brief Overview of Divorce and Remarriage in New Testament

Let’s look at the key verses in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and 1 Corinthians. It is a review for my own introductory education. Call it “Divorce and Remarriage 101.”

First, let me say I am not a pastor overseeing a church. I am just a teacher who interprets Scripture after translating it and researching what the best of scholarship says. All real-life questions about divorce must be discussed and (hopefully) settled by a local church that is Bible-based.

Second, entire books have been written on this complex topic. Call my efforts here “A Beginner’s Guide to Divorce and Remarriage.” As noted, I write to learn.

Third, I offer here my translation and commentary in my ongoing project of translating and commenting on the NT, for the purpose of reaching people who don’t have access to printed commentaries and Study Bibles, in developing countries. My interpretation is not comprehensive.

I encourage you to go to biblegateway.com to see other translations.

Matthew

Mark

Luke

31 It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife should give her a certificate of divorce.” [Deut. 24:1] 32 But I tell you that everyone divorcing his wife except for the cause of sexual sin makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (5:31-32)    
3 Then some Pharisees approached him, testing him and saying, “It is permitted for a man to divorce his wife for every cause?” 4 In reply, he said, “Haven’t you read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’? [Gen. 1:27; 5:2] 5 And he said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave father and mother and shall join together with his wife, and they shall be one flesh’? [Gen. 2:24] 6 So then they are no longer two, but instead one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no person separate.”

 

7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 He said to them, “Moses, because of your hard heart permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not like that. 9 I tell you that whoever divorces his wife except for sexual misconduct and marries another commits adultery. [And he who marries a woman who has been divorced commits adultery]”

10 His disciples said to him, “If the case of a man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” (19:3-10)

2 The Pharisees approached and asked him, in order to test him, whether it was legal for a husband to divorce his wife. 3 In reply, he said to them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a person ‘to write a certificate of divorce and to divorce.’ [Deut. 24:1, 3] 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote this command for you, 6 but from the beginning of creation ‘he made them male and female.’ [Gen. 1:27; 5:2] 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and adhere to his wife. 8 And the two shall be one flesh, so then they are no longer two but instead one flesh.’ [Gen. 2:24] 9 Therefore what God has joined together let not a person split apart.”

 

10 Then inside the house again, the disciples asked him about this matter. 11 He said to them, “If he divorces his wife and marries another woman, he commits adultery against her. 12 And if she, having divorced her husband, marries another man, she commits adultery.” (10:2-12)

18 Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (16:18)

1 Corinthians 7:10-16

10 To the married, I instruct—not I but the Lord—that a wife must not separate from the husband 11 (if she separates, let her remain unmarried or let her be reconciled to her husband;) and (the Lord instructs that) the husband must not leave his wife. 12 To the rest I say, not the Lord, if a brother has an unbelieving wife and she consents to live with him, let him not leave her. 13 Likewise, if a wife has an unbelieving husband and he consents to live with her, let her not leave him. 14 For the unbelieving husband may be sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife sanctified by the brother. If it were otherwise, your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever separates,* let them separate.* Neither the brother or sister is enslaved in such circumstances. God has called you to be in peace. 16 How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

*Please note: the word “separate” can be translated as “divorce” (BDAG), so it is not just a separation in the modern sense. 

Exposition

Jesus introduces the exception clause in divorce: except for the cause of sexual sin (porneia, pronounced pohr-nay-ah) or generally sexual immorality (Matt. 5:31-32). Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 do not have this exception. Let’s explore this issue.

First, the law of Moses has an ambiguous element in it.

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house (Deut. 24:1, ESV, emphasis added)

That verse says that a man can write up a certificate of divorce and send his wife out of his house. Why? If he finds any cause of “indecency” in her. That’s the key word. Before Jesus lived, liberal interpreters (School of Hillel) said a man could divorce her for any cause (note those words). “Indecency” was stretched to include even bad food preparation. Strict interpreters (School of Shammai) said a man can divorce her only for sexual misconduct, because that is what indecency really meant.

Jewish law permitted only the man to initiate a divorce, so he always had the upper hand. Abuse and manipulation could arise. Jesus’s goal is to expose the hard hearts and protect women, not oppress them with a worse kingdom.

Second, in Matt. 19:3, the Pharisees asked him whether a man can divorce his wife for any cause. How would Jesus answer? He endorsed the Edenic model of one man and one woman, and they should stay together, because they made a covenant before God. He joined them together. The Pharisees replied by asking why Moses permitted the certificate of divorce. He said that Moses accommodated their hardness of heart, but at the beginning it was not so (Matt. 19:7-8). Then Jesus revealed he was on the side of Shammai—divorce is allowed only for sexual misconduct, as he does in Matt. 5:31-32.

Third, Paul provides another cause of divorce: abandonment (1 Cor. 7:15). Recall that “separates” could be translated as “divorce,” so the divorce is already done, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that the nonChristian man has simply abandoned the marriage without a divorce. This abandonment can take three forms. One could call the first one departure and the second one persistent neglect and the third one abusive abandonment.

None of these following reasons constitute legal or pastoral advice, but my reasons are my interpretation of Scripture.

(1). The first one says that when a man abandons his wife, she has the option to divorce him, or she can pray him back and hope for reconciliation. However, let’s say he refuses to return. Then the abandoned wife can divorce him. Further, if he divorced her and married someone else, then she should definitely move on with her life, without any fear that remarriage would be a sin (as we shall see, below). She is not bound: “But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace” (1 Cor. 7:15, NIV). This “unbound” condition has to include remarriage to someone else because how is she “unbound” if she still has remain single in a weird attachment to her old marriage? That’s bondage. 

(2). The second form of abandonment is persistent negligence, which means continuous and flagrant disregard for her and her right to live in matrimony with her. Let’s say he irresponsibly, hardheartedly and unrepentantly comes and goes as he pleases and does not provide for her, whether materially or sexually or affectionately. Yes, in this situation, let’s hope they can work things out and reconcile, but in the end, if he is irresponsibly, hardheartedly, and unrepentantly neglecting his duties, and reconciliation or solutions are impossible, he may be crossing too many lines (and no, I’m not talking about losing his job through no fault of his own or going on an agreed-on short-term mission trip, so sex is withheld). Counsel and care must be used in these situations, and the best goal is reconciliation. But divorce is also possible on the basis of this form of abandonment (1 Cor. 7:15).

(3). What is abusive abandonment? This is when he is physically abusive and she has to flee. From a shallow reading of the situation, it appears as if the woman has abandoned him because she left the house, and he is still living there. But this is a clunky (and cruel) interpretation of the situation. He pushed her away, and he caused the abandonment by his aggression. Think of causation in a car crash. Someone hits your car, and you hit someone else’s car; the judge would conclude that the first car caused the three-car accident, and the drivers of the second (you) and third cars are not responsible. Likewise, the abusive husband caused the wife to leave the house, but she is the innocent party. In her departure she did not actually abandon him, but he had already abandoned her and broke the marriage covenant first. He forced her to suffer his abandonment by his aggression.

This verse is relevant:

Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Tim. 5:8,  NIV, emphasis added)

A “believer” who abandons his household is worse than an unbeliever. He forfeits his right to consider himself a believer in practice. A husband abusing his household is worse than not providing for his household.

It works out like this:

Domestic violence = breaking marriage covenant = abusive abandonment

Fleeing domestic violence ≠ abandonment

All these cases need a Christian community and wise leadership to sort out the smaller details. Pray for reconciliation, because staying married is God’s original plan, Jesus said. However, if reconciliation is impossible, because, for example, he is hardhearted and stubbornly refuses to repent and seek counseling, then divorce is permitted in the above restricted circumstances. Often abusers do not change or do not change fast enough before–sad to say–murder takes place.

Now what about remarriage after a divorce, and the spouse is still alive?

First, in the Jewish context of Jesus’s day, it was standard to write a certificate for divorce that included the words: “You are free to marry any man.”

R.T. France explains the context:

Without this permission [to remarry] it was not divorce. Divorce and the right to remarry are thus inseparable, and the Jewish world knew nothing of a legal separation which did not allow remarriage. There is nothing in Jesus’s words, here or in the Mark and Luke parallels, to suggest that he intended to initiate any such provision. His condemnation of remarriage as adultery is simply on the grounds that the divorce (unless for adultery) was not legitimate and so the original marriage remains valid in the sight of God. (France, p. 212)

Therefore, let’s not over-interpret what Jesus said by imposing modern concerns. Remarriage was possible after a divorce when the divorce was effected under the right conditions.

Darrell L. Bock writes the same, in a slightly more complicated way, in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke:

… the purpose of divorce in the ancient world: to put one in a position to remarry. It would appear that to qualify the right to divorce is to qualify the right to remarry by implication. Otherwise, why else divorce, since one could just be permanently separate? Luke’s presentation of Jesus’s teaching on divorce is not as full as Matthew’s because he is using this teaching as an illustration of Jesus’s authority; it is a presentation of the basic principle, not the full teaching. Matthew, however, addresses Jesus’s teaching in detail and seems to allow divorce on the grounds of sexual unfaithfulness, though the ideal, as passages such as 1 Cor. 7:10-11 show, is that marriage should be maintained if at all possible. The implication of Matthew’s teaching seems to be that, if divorce is given because of unfaithfulness, the partner who was not unfaithful has the right to remarry. (vol. 2, p. 1358)

The bottom line of those two long excerpts is that Matt. 5:31-32, which allows divorce for sexual misconduct, permits remarriage even in Luke’s one verse, since misconduct was the purpose of divorce in the first place in Jewish culture. Jesus simply wants to restrict remarriage after divorce to the proper grounds: sexual misconduct. Luke omitted the exception to show Jesus’s authority (Bock); or he omitted the exception because his Jewish and Greek readers already knew that Roman and Jewish allowed remarriage after divorce; Matthew just made it explicit (France).

My opinion: these two prominent commentators make perfect sense to me.

Second, let’s reply to this question, just to be clear: What about Jesus’s last clause in Matt. 5:32, above (and see Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18)? He plainly says that a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery and other variations in the verses. In reply, to add to what was said in the first point, the whole context of Matt. 5:31-32 is divorce for silly reasons. Siding with Shammai (up to a point), Jesus was tightening things up in order to help the woman who was unjustly turned out of her first husband’s house. In an easy divorce society, which Hillel promoted, marrying and remarrying could potentially become a wife-swapping scheme, in pursuit of the latest and most attractive woman. “I like her! I’m bored with my wife now. She’s old! I know what I’ll do! I’ll write up a certificate of divorce on flimsy grounds, tell my current wife to go home, and marry this new woman who strikes my fancy!”

So we could translate the clause in Matt. 5:32 more fully, based on the context:

And whoever marries a divorced woman in a society that allows frivolous divorce for the purpose of treating wives like disposable chattel commits adultery (Matt. 5:32, expanded)

That expanded translation is valid because of the debate between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel.

Jesus’s goal is to protect women, not impose kingdom oppression on them. Jewish law allowed only the man to initiate the divorce and thereby possibly victimize the woman. Further, as noted, Jewish law assumed that remarriage was legal, and Jesus did too, when porneia was committed, and Paul recognized divorce for abandonment for a believer married to an unbeliever.

Therefore, if “Spouse A” abandons the marriage by divorce, then the abandoned “Spouse B” is not bound to “Spouse A” or the marriage. He or she is free to remarry. But each couple or the single divorcee must get counsel from wise leaders in the church who can look at the unique set of circumstances.

Third, then why doesn’t Luke (and Mark) mention the sin of sexual immorality as a reason for divorce, while Matthew does? Craig Keener notes, referring to R.T. France’s comments, in Keener’s commentary on Matthew 19:1-9, that everyone knew that divorce was allowed for sexual misconduct or immorality. In fact, both Jewish and Roman law mandated a dissolution of the marriage, as a simple recognition that the marriage covenant had already been terminated by the creation of a new marriage. Therefore, Luke (and Mark) does not need to mention the exception of sexual misconduct; he assumed his readers would know this law, both in Israel and the Greek provinces (pp. 466-67). Matthew made explicit what Luke and (Mark) assumed.

Fourth, what about remarriage after divorce according to 1 Cor. 7:15? I agree with Paul Gardner in his commentary on v. 15, when the unbelieving spouse abandons the marriage: “In the situation of v. 15a, neither the state of marriage (the ‘enslavement’?) pertains nor, since now there is no marriage, do the Christian rules about divorce and remarriage ‘bind.’ It is our view that this sad situation of an unbeliever walking out of a marriage to a Christian and forcing a divorce leaves the man or woman as if their partner was dead and hence, under certain strict conditions, available for remarriage.”

I also agree with Thomas R. Shreiner who writes of v. 15 on whether the verse permits remarriage:

Certainty is impossible, but Paul probably things remarriage is permissible in such instances. First, according Jewish and Graeco-Roman tradition, divorce implies freedom to remarry, and Paul would need to make it quite clear if he dissented from the tradition. Second, I suggested in the interpretation of 7:10-11 that Jesus permitted remarriage in the case of sexual infidelity. Third, even though some Corinthians were interested in asceticism, we can scarcely say that all of them were, and, in any case, Paul, as a wise servant of Christ, knew human nature. He would recognize that some would desire to remarry. Fourth, the word ‘bound’ (douleō) [pronounced doo-leh-oh and means ‘enslave’]  used here and ‘bound’ (deō) [pronounced deh-oh and means ‘bind’] in 7:39 belong to the same semantic range and are thus roughly synonymous. Hence Paul thinks married women are bound dedetai [verb form related to deõ] while a husband lives but they are ‘free’ (… Rom. 7:3; 1 Cor. 7:39) when a husband dies. So too here, a person is bound to the marriage until the unbelieving spouse chooses to initiate a divorce (p. 144)

And so from the context remarriage is permitted if the unbelieving spouse leaves or divorces.

Further, 1 Cor. 7:15 is about an unbeliever abandoning the marriage, but what about a believer who irresponsibly does this? As noted, Paul writes in the context of widows: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim. 5:8, NIV). So to combine 1 Cor. 7:15 and this verse, the marriage may be considered broken by a believer  abandoning his household in this way too. But this situation would take further counseling, since the irresponsible man is a believer who may repent.

Fifth, to summarize 1 Cor. 7:15, if the husband had no biblical reason for divorce, but he simply abandoned his wife by the act of divorce, then according to the v. 15, she is not bound. The opposite of “bound” is “free,” for the Greek word for “bound” can be translated as “enslaved” in some contexts. No one should still be forced to be a slave to a covenant broken by a spouse who had abandoned the marriage by divorce. The abandoned spouse is free to remarry. Paul knew human nature; it was better to marry than to burn with passion (1 Cor. 7:9).

Nonconformist ‘Marriages’

Now let’s discuss another issue regarding marriage.

Even in the (sad) context of divorce, the verses in the table embody a great statement and affirmation in support of heterosexual and monogamous marriage, which is especially relevant to the world today, where it is trendy to see two women or two men get married. However, Jesus says that originally God’s plan for marriage was one man and one woman, and they alone can have a union that makes them one flesh. Two women cannot, nor can two men. The physical union between male and female touches the core of the soul, and two women and two men cannot have this. Yes, they can have a certain level of intimacy because they can sexually stimulate each other, either at the same time or by taking turns, but only a man and a woman can have penile-clitoral sex, which is the most intimate and, yes, most pleasurable. So there is a hierarchy of sexual relations, and this is at the top. Same-sex couples cannot match or achieve it. God ordained through natural processes that there should be this hierarchy.

This pleasure is God’s gift to humanity by virtue of how he anatomically made them. Why? He intends them to have children or to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). Yes, it is true that sometimes a couple chooses not to have children, and God gave them freewill to go in this direction. It may not be the best for them or humanity in general, and let’s trust they are listening to God and not to their own egoism, but for most couples God wants them to be fruitful and multiply.

And yes, it is true that sometimes a couple cannot have children because something has gone wrong with the reproductive side of things. We can pray for God’s healing, either supernaturally or by treatment. But if they cannot have them naturally even after prayer or treatment, then we should not let these extreme cases set biblical norms. As the saying goes: extreme cases make bad policy. The good news is that this couple can adopt and give a wonderful home to needy children.

Now what about not dividing or splitting what God has joined together? Don’t go near a marriage and seduce one of the partners to commit adultery. And married partner, don’t you dare allow yourself to be seduced.

I have heard of a case in which a lesbian had been chasing a single straight woman, seducing her with inaccurate and wrongheaded books about how the Bible allows for same-sex relationships. The single woman told the lesbian to stop. She did—for a while. The single woman got married to a man, and they were happy. But the lesbian kept pursuing her. The married woman gave in, believing a lie about herself and soul. She got a divorce and married the lesbian. I saw her parents in a coffeeshop, by a strange coincidence. The dad said he didn’t know his daughter was a lesbian. It surprised him. I replied that she is not a lesbian. She is just confused. I told both her mom and dad to pray her back into normalcy. Lesbians relationships don’t last. Divorce rate is high.

(Actually, two “married” men or two “married” women getting a “divorce” is not really a divorce in the eyes of God because he never recognized the union in the first place. It is a biblical and godly act to dissolve the “marriage” and surrender to righteous living in the kingdom of God.)

The mom looked surprised and thoughtful. Maybe she took my advice to pray for her daughter even if the mom has to pray for years before deliverance and truth penetrated her daughter’s mind. Very sad on the surface, but very hopeful at bottom and in the long run. People of same-sex attraction can develop opposite attraction, after being born again, discipled, leaving behind the “old community” and be filled with the Spirit regularly, and renewing the mind through Scripture. Thousands have done this. See their story online.

As for the lesbian that broke up whom God had put together, she will receive a severe punishment at final judgment. She broke the command of Jesus himself in v. 6. Don’t divide what God has joined.

Please see my post:

Warning to Evolving, Progressive Churches: Marriage and Sex

As for polygamy or bigamy, the Torah assumes (but does not command) that a man can have two or more wives (Exod. 21:10 and Deut. 21:15), but restrictions were placed on him, so that he better think twice before getting involved in it. And it seems wherever polygamy is practiced, trouble brewed. So the Bible shows by example not to get involved in it. Jesus said the original goal was one man and one woman, as seen in the very beginning, at creation.

Commentaries

In this section, Matthew, Mark and Luke are looked at, but I also include 1 Cot. 7:10-11, which, as noted, says:

10 To the married, I instruct—not I but the Lord—that a wife must not separate from the husband 11 (if she separates, let her remain unmarried or let her be reconciled to her husband;) and (the Lord instructs) the husband must not leave his wife.

Paul got his ruling from the traditions circulating from Jesus himself. So what happens to Jesus followers who divorce and remarry? Are they in a permanent state of adultery?

I like what commentator R. T. France says of biblical ethics and divorce in Matt. 19:1-2:

The ethics of the kingdom of heaven, as we have seen them illustrated in 5:21-48, seek not primarily how evil may be contained and alleviated, but how the best may be discerned and followed. It would make a huge and beneficial difference to modern debates on divorce if this priority were observed, so that the focus fell not on what grounds for divorce may be permitted (as in the Pharisee’s question), but on how marriage may best be lived up to the Creator’s purpose for it. There will, no doubt, always be a need for trouble-shooting legislation and pastoral help when things have gone wrong, but if that is where our ethical discussion begins, the battle is lost before it is joined. Those who start from Deut. 24:1-4 will have as their basic presupposition that divorce is to be expected, the question being only how it is to be regulated. Those who start from Gen. 1-2 will see any separation of what God has joined together as always an evil; circumstances may prove it to be the lesser evil, but that can never make it less than an infringement of the primary purpose of God for marriage. (p. 714)

Perfect. Instead of beginning with Deut. 24:14 and looking to get away with as much as we can, let’s follow Jesus’s counsel and go back to God’s original intention in Gen. 1-2, which is maintaining a healthy marriage.

Commenting on Matt. 5:31-32, Craig L. Blomberg warns against overinterpreting the word “adulteress”:

Ancient Jews (like Greeks and Romans) almost universally agreed that lawful divorce granted a person the right to remarry. So Jesus’ words would almost certainly have been taken as permission for remarriage when divorce was permitted, i.e., after marital unfaithfulness. In other cases divorce causes adultery. The phrase “causes her to become an adulteress,” however, is misleading. The Greek does not use the noun “adulteress” but the verb makes her commit adultery. There is no indication here that a second marriage, even following an illegitimate divorce, is seen as permanently adulterous. Divorced Christians who have remarried should not commit the sin of a second divorce to try to resume relations with a previous spouse (see again Deut 24:1–4) but should begin afresh to observe God’s standards by remaining faithful to their current partners. What is more, it was probably not the taking of a new husband that made the wife commit adultery, since some divorced women remained unmarried. Jesus maintains that the divorce itself creates adultery—metaphorically, not literally—through infidelity to the lifelong, covenantal nature of marriage (cf. the characteristic Old Testament use of “adultery” to refer to breaking one’s commitments to God—e.g., Hos 2:4; Jer 5:7; Ezek 16:32).

So if you have been divorced and are now remarried, you are not committing permanent adultery. But this adultery against your original commitment was a one-time act; you do not live with the “adulteress” or “adulterer” label permanently tattooed on your forehead in your second marriage.

Commenting on Matt. 19:9 Prof. Blomberg connects what Jesus and Paul had in common:

Perhaps the best approach is to ask what these two exceptions [sexual immorality and abandonment] of Jesus and Paul have in common. Both destroy at least one of the two fundamental components of marriage, either the “leaving and cleaving” or the “one flesh” unity. Both leave one party without any other options if attempts at reconciliation are spurned. Both recognize the extreme seriousness of divorce as a last resort and as an admission of defeat. These observations seem to leave the door open for divorce as a final step, as perhaps the lesser of evils, when all else has failed, similar to excommunication for unrepentant sinners. To open this door of course means that some will abuse their freedom and walk through it prematurely. And undue attention to the exception clause of v. 9 risks losing sight of Jesus’ overall point that divorce is never desirable. Married people should always be seeking ways to improve and enhance relations with spouses rather than wondering how they can get out of the commitments they have made. Those who divorce and/or remarry on any grounds must admit failure, repent of the sins that led to the dissolution of their marriage, and vow to remain faithful to any subsequent relationships. A new marriage is not continuous adultery. At most, the first sex act with a new partner is what violates the previous relationship, but more likely Jesus is using the term “adultery” in a metaphorical sense to refer to the divorce itself (see under 5:32).

Yes, those two exceptions are legitimate grounds for divorce, Blomberg says, but divorce should be the final step, the last resort. Instead, couples should look for ways to improve their marriage and not look for ways to abandon their covenants. If they do divorce, they must admit their failures and repent of their sins. A new marriage is not continuous adultery, for the term “adultery” in Jesus’ original context refers to the divorce itself and can be metaphorical.

France’s long comments on Mark 10:11-12 are stark and accurate about Mark’s version of divorce, which mentions no exception:

The balancing statement about the wife who divorces her husband may reflect an origin for Mark’s gospel, or at least for this tradition, in Rome, where the law recognised a wife’s right to divorce. In the Jewish world this was not permitted, and the famous case of Herodias (see on 6:17) is the exception which proves the rule; it was not only the fact of her close relationship to Antipas but also her ‘divorce’ from her first husband (perhaps informal, but more likely invoking Roman law) which provoked John the Baptist’s condemnation of her second marriage. Josephus reflects the Jewish sense of scandal: [she divorced while husband was living] (Ant. 18.136). It was because she was a woman that her ‘divorce’ was disapproved, but for Mark’s Jesus there is no difference at this point between men and women: if either initiates a divorce and then remarries, the result is the same, adultery.

The practical application of this teaching in a society in which both adultery and divorce are common and legally permissible cannot be straightforward. But Mark’s Jesus offers no direct guidance on the problem, simply a clear, unequivocal, and utterly uncompromising principle that marriage is permanent and divorce (together with the resultant remarriage) is wrong. Whatever the other considerations which pastoral concern may bring to bear, some of them no doubt based on values drawn from Jesus’ teaching on other subjects, no approach can claim his support which does not take as its guiding principle the understanding of marriage set forth in vv. 9 and 11–12.

In that long quotation, France says that Jesus’s policy on divorce in Mark’s version cannot help anyone who seeks a divorce without first coming to grips with Mark 10:9, 11-12 and then exploring other verses.  No easy escapism.

Strauss writes of Mark 10:11:

Some have claimed that Jesus here allows divorce (v. 5) but rules out remarriage (vv. 11-12). This, however, misses the point of the passage in two ways. First, divorce without the right to remarriage was inconceivable in first-century Judaism … Second, while Jesus acknowledges the reality of divorce (v. 5), he in no way condones it, viewing it as contrary to God’s will. Verses 11-12 do not therefore introduce teaching different from vv. 5-9, but rather explains its implications. Divorce is contrary to God’s purpose for marriage, arises from hard human hearts, and produces spiritual adultery.

We are not supposed to fish around for reasons to divorce, and not allow sin to so deceive us that we seek for a divorce, but divorcees do not live in permanent sin if they remarry. No one can find this unbending doctrine in those verses.

David E. Garland catches the spirit behind Jesus’ restriction on divorce in Mark’s Gospel:

Jesus’ opponents have consequently misunderstood both Scripture and God’s will for marriage. God created male and female and joins them into a one-flesh relationship. Since God is the one who joins the two together, he is the Lord of the union. Who are males to make themselves the lords of the marriage by ousting an unwanted wife as they might discard a piece of used goods? God abandons no one; the husband is not to abandon his spouse even if it has legal precedent. The answer to the Pharisees’ question is therefore, “No! It is not lawful for a husband to put away his spouse” if one understands “lawful” in terms of God’s will and not in terms of finding “escape clauses” in the legal fine print. Jesus directly opposed the view expressed in Sirach 25:26: “If she does not go as you direct, separate her from yourself.” His argument gives dignity and value to the wife; she is not an appendage that the husband can jettison at will.” (p. 380)

And so Jesus was protecting the value and worth of womankind, when he rejected the easy divorce culture. The husband is not allowed to throw away his wife, as he saw fit, because he believes he ruled over her. It is Jesus’ intent to protect that must guide our pastoral care of the couple, particularly the woman, and our interpretation of the passages in the table.

Next, Garland, interpreting the verse in the Gospel of Luke, offers hope for the divorced and remarried person, because of Luke’s theme of restoration.

Marriage provides a wonderful opportunity to expose and then exterminate any forms of selfishness that lurks in our lives. Many, however, ultimately fail in this task. While divorce is a deplorable but inescapable fact of life because of the sinful nature of the human condition, it is not to be treated lightly, but neither is it to be treated as the unpardonable sin. Any broken marriage falls short of God’s will, but this applies to any sin. Then what? Where does one go from there? The principle of salvage and redemption of broken sinners run through the Gospel of Luke. If someone were to fracture a leg, he or she would go to a specialist to see what can be done to rebuild it as best as possible. One cannot turn back the clock and undo the injury, but one must ask what the options are for the future and how God’s grace can heal the brokenness. (p. 664)

All sins fall short of God’s will–even divorce. Where do we go from there? God can heal the brokenness and redeem the sinner.

Finally, Keener is right about divorce in his comment on Matt. 5:31-32:

Although the thrust of this passage is faithfulness to one’s marriage, Matthew’s exception clause does not allow his readers to apply his rhetorical overstatement legalistically. Indeed, to read the Sermon on the Mount “legalistically as a set of rules is to miss the point; it represents a demand more radical than any legislator could conceive,” still less enforce [Keener is quoting France]. Jesus’ central point, which the hyperbolic image is meant to evoke, is the sanctity of marriage …. Addressing the hardness of legal interpreters’ hearts (19:8), Jesus opposed divorce to protect marriage and family, thereby seeking to prevent betrayal of innocent spouses (p. 192). 

So the main goal of Jesus in his divorce pronouncements, not only in Matt. 5:31-32, but everywhere else, is to protect marriage and family from loose morals and easy divorce. It is not a new legalism beyond human capacity or current law in his own times.  

Application

If you’re a Bible study leader and feel unequipped to deal with divorce and remarriage, just remind your study group of these overarching principles and cultural context behind those passages in the table. Let these principles and context guide your interpretation and discussion.

First, in Jewish society in the time of Jesus, divorce was getting very loose (for “any cause”) and harmed a woman who was sent back to her father’s house, if no one else wanted her.

Second, in an easy-divorce context, manipulation could happen in the form of wife-swapping or recently divorced men and women marrying. Deut. 24:1-4 is really about a man divorcing his wife and stopping him from remarrying her if she had married a second man, and her second husband sent her out of the house. He might have given her a dowry of sorts or a prosperous sendoff, and then the first husband craved the extra resource. The law was prohibiting sloppy marriage and remarriage.

Third, therefore, in an easy divorce context, Jesus was tightening things up, to protect the vulnerable woman. Let’s not overinterpret Jesus’s intent by taking it out of the original historical and cultural context.

Fourth, Jesus was putting an end to all the piled-up interpretations of Deut. 24:1-4, cutting through the Gordian knot. Instead, he appealed to the very beginning, at creation (Gen. 1-2). God made them male and female in his image, and he himself joined them to be together. And what he joined—let no person split apart by using convoluted interpretations of Deut. 24:1-4. Womankind has dignity, also being made in God’s image. She cannot be thrown away when a man feels like it.

Fifth, therefore, marriage is a covenant not only between the man and the woman, but between God, the man and the woman. Involve God in your marriage. If you do not, then sin shall enter, which may destroy the covenant, and civil, legal divorce may ensue. Then the commitment towards God, who caused and sustained the marriage union, is broken, which is a form of adultery.

Sixth, if a person has suffered from divorce, please explain that divorce is a forgivable sin. God can redeem the divorcee, even if the one who initiated the divorce did so for unbiblical reasons. Restoration is God’s specialty. Salvation is his heart.

Seventh, the commentators agree that a second marriage after a divorce is permitted in the original historical context, even in light of the stricter divorce passages in Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels. In a second marriage after a divorce, no one has to live with the labels “adulterer” or “adulteress” permanently tattooed on the forehead. God offers redemption.

Eighth, abandonment by an unbeliever is a reason for divorce, and remarriage after the divorce is permitted.

Ninth, the victim of an unjust divorce must be willing to forgive the departing spouse, no matter how difficult it is to forgive and no matter how painful the divorce was.

Tenth, if you, as a Bible study leader, come across a very difficult marriage and potential divorce, please refer the person to the church. The pastoral team has resources to help or can refer the person to other qualified individuals, who will look at the unique set of circumstances.

Eleventh and finally, a last word of exhortation: Go to church, get counseling, and pray! Divorce is the last resort!

SOURCES

I refer to a community of Bible scholars. I’m not a “Lone Ranger” with just “me and my Bible.” There’s wisdom in seeking advice from wise counselors (Prov. 15:22).

Bock, Darrel L.  Luke 9:51-24:53. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Vol. 2 (Baker 1996).

Blomberg, Craig L. Matthew: The New American Commentary. Vol. 22 (Broadman, 1992).

Brookins, Timothy A. and Bruce Longenecker. 1 Corinthians 1-9: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor UP, 2016).

Carson, D. A. Matthew: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Rev. Ed. by Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland. Vol. 9. (Zondervan, 2010).

Decker, Rodney J. Mark 9-16: A Handbook on the Greek Text (Baylor UP, 2014).

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: New International Commentary on the New Testament. (Eerdmans 2007).

—. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Eerdmans, 2002).

Gardner, Paul. 1 Corinthians: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2018).

Garland, David E. Luke: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2011).

—. Mark: the NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 1996)

The Greek New Testament. Fifth Revised Edition by Barbara Aland, Kurt Aland, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo M. Martini, Bruce M. Metzger (United Bible Society, 2014).

Keener, Craig. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. (Eerdmans 1999).

Olmstead, Wesley G. Matthew 1-14: A Handbook on the Greek Text. (Baylor UP, 2019).

—. Matthew 15-28: A Handbook on the Greek Text. (Baylor UP, 2019).

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1 Corinthians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (IVP Academic, 2018).

Strauss, Mark L. Mark: Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan, 2014).

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