Sound Teaching

This is the teaching site of the West Side church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX. Unless otherwise indicated, all materials were written and prepared by Stan Cox

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An Exegesis of Matthew 5:31-32

The fifth through the seventh chapters of Matthew provide a record of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in Galilee, early on in His ministry.

Jesus spoke on numerous subjects, establishing His will for mankind. Again and again He said, “I say unto you.” As such, His teaching on these matters is to be studied carefully.

After discussing the sins of adultery and lust, Jesus taught, “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (5:31-32). In this passage, Jesus preempted the teaching of the law in establishing his own will.

This is clearly seen in the construct: “it has been said” … “But I say to you.”

In the statement, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce”, Jesus was quoting Moses’ restriction on divorce, recorded in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. What Moses allowed due to their hard hearts, Jesus prohibited (cf. Matthew 19:8). This is the force of his statement, “But I say to you.” Jesus was rescinding the liberty of Moses, and restoring God’s intended teaching on marriage from the beginning.

It is interesting to note that though Matthew 19 and Mark 10 (which include Jesus’ teaching on the subject of marriage and divorce on another occasion) each mention remarriage after divorce, Jesus does not broach the subject of remarriage in this passage. Instead, He gives a concise and powerful statement which establishes His attitude toward the nature of the marriage commitment.

Jesus’ statement regarding the binding nature of marriage contains an exception. As worded in verse 32, the exception clause says, “for any reason except sexual immorality”. The term “sexual immorality” is the greek word porneia, and has reference to unlawful sexual intercourse. It is a general term, and would have reference to any type of such intercourse, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or any other perverted form of the sexual act. Jesus understood the destructive nature of such a betrayal, and here gives permission for the innocent to seek a divorce in such a circumstance. It is interesting to note that the innocent is not only given permission to divorce in such cases, but is also able to remarry, with God’s approval (cf. Matthew 19:9).

With the exception noted, consider carefully the prohibition on divorce given by Jesus. “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife … causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” First, it is important, though obvious, to note that the her of the text is the divorced wife. Grammar necessitates the antecedent of the pronoun her to be the wife. Additionally, there is nothing in the context of Matthew 5 which would allow the pronoun to be referring to any other woman.

To understand what Jesus meant in the statement “causes her to commit adultery”, it must be recognized that though the divorce ends the marriage, it does not dissolve the bond placed upon the couple by God. It has rightly been said that man controls the marriage, but God controls the bond. So, though a divorce is granted, and the two are no longer married, any further sexual activity (even in a new marriage) is considered by Jesus to be adulterous. Hence, “whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” Though she is no longer married to her husband, she nevertheless remains bound to him before God.

Jesus recognized the nature of man, and both the sexual drive and social norms which would lead a divorced woman to again marry. The disciples were aware of this too, and were compelled to exclaim on another occasion of Jesus’ teaching on this matter: “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (cf. Matthew 19:10).

While the sin of adultery was not inevitable on the part of the divorced woman, the treachery of the divorce would certainly tempt her in this direction. Though the woman would bear guilt in this scenario, the man who divorced her is culpable as well. Hence, Jesus’ statement, “whoever divorces his wife… causes her to commit adultery.” The man causes the adultery in that he causes the circumstances of her temptation. He places the rock of offense before her. If he had not dealt treacherously with her, the marriage would remain and the adultery would not happen.

So, Jesus here condemns divorce for any cause other than sexual immorality. In fact, if you canvas the New Testament teaching on the subject, the only exception explicitly stated in scripture giving the right of divorce is sexual immorality. If divorce takes place for any other reason, the one who divorces contributes to the potential sin of the one divorced.

Jesus’ teaching in this is not surprising. God has always considered the marriage relationship to be one binding for life… one man, one woman, for a lifetime. Even as Moses provided a means for divorce, he did so “because of the hardness of your hearts, but from the beginning it was not so.” (cf. Matthew 19:8).

The prophet Malachi recorded the word of God on the subject. “‘For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously'” (Malachi 2:16). The sin of the people at that time was dealing “treacherously with the wife of [their] youth” (cf. Malachi 2:15), and the scourge of divorce is likewise prevalent in our time.

The ungodly world around us may not recognize the treacherous nature of divorce, and the subsequent culpability in sin that follows, but Christians should be aware of and respect the teaching of our Lord on the matter. Remember, Jesus said, “But I say unto you…” Let us all listen to the words of Jesus on this matter.