What Does the Bible Say About Divorce and Remarriage?

Matthew 19:1-12

November 23, 1997 | Ray Pritchard

Perhaps the place to begin is with a few quotes taken from The Abolition of Marriage by Maggie Gallagher:

“Over the past 30 years a consistent 96% of the American public has expressed a personal desire for marriage. Only 8% of American women consider remaining single ideal, a proportion that has not changed over the past twenty years. Almost three-quarters of adult Americans believe that ’marriage is a lifelong commitment that should not be ended except under extreme circumstances.’ Even 81% of divorced and separated Americans still believe that marriage should be for life” (p. 8).

“The marriage rate has fallen nearly 30% since 1970 and the divorce rate has increased about 40%” (p. 5).

“Half of all children will witness the breakup of a parentís marriage. Of these, close to half will also see the breakup of a parentís second marriage” (p.76).

“Ten percent of children of divorce will go on to witness three or more family breakups” (p. 76).

Here are the raw numbers taken from the National Statistical Abstract: In 1950 there were 385,000 divorces in America; in 1970, 709,000; in 1990, 1,175,000.

Divorce is taking its toll on evangelical churches. Recently, columnist Chuck Colson revealed some shocking statistics. “Pollster George Barna discovered that born-again Christians actually have a higher rate of divorce (27 percent) than nonbelievers (23 percent).”He added, “Fundamentalists top them all (30 percent); and 87 percent divorced after accepting Christ, presumably aware of the biblical teaching on divorce.”

Two Extremes to Avoid…

In thinking about the question of divorce and remarriage, there are two extremes we must avoid. First, we must avoid saying more on this subject than the Bible actually says. In years past divorced people often felt like lepers inside the evangelical church. Even today they sometimes feel like second-class citizens who are barely tolerated by the rest of the congregation. In our zeal to condemn divorce, we sometimes condemn those who have been divorced. We hate the sin and the sinner. I remember in my early years at Calvary talking with a friend-who has since moved out of the area-who told me how difficult it was to feel at home here 25 years ago because of his divorce. Not only could he not be in leadership, at first he couldn’t even serve as an usher. Such stories could be multiplied in every church. I’m glad to say that that attitude has slowly shifted over the years. No matter how much we may hate divorce, we must not erect barriers that the Bible itself does not set up.

Second, we must also avoid saying less than what the Bible actually says. In some ways the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme in many churches. Because we are truly living in a divorce culture, and perhaps because we want to respond to hurting people with the grace of God, sometimes in our zeal to reach people we have actually lowered the biblical standards-or abandoned them altogether. Sometimes the church has simply winked at unbiblical divorce because it would be too difficult or too painful to hold Christians to the high standards of God’s Word. As a result our churches are filled with hurting, confused believers who truly want to know what the Bible says and wonder why they never get their questions answered.

In this message we will consider the central passage in the gospels dealing with the issue of divorce and remarriage. Let me tell you in advance this passage will not answer every possible question, but it does clearly lay down the teaching of Jesus Christ on this subject. Since he is the head of the church, this is where our thinking must always begin.

I. A Tricky Question: 1-3

The passage opens with a tricky question put to the Lord by the Pharisees. Because this is Matthew 19, we know that this discussion takes place near the end of Christ’s earthly ministry. I call it a tricky question because it isn’t really a sincere attempt to discover the truth.

You need to know one important piece of background in order to understand this question properly. In the first century the Pharisees were divided into two groups led by two great rabbis-Hillel and Shammai. With regard to divorce Hillel was a liberal. He taught that a Jewish man could divorce for any reason whatsoever-no matter how flimsy. For instance, if a wife burned the toast, the husband could divorce her. Or if he felt his wife had insulted his parents, he could divorce her. Some of his followers said that if a man found a woman he liked better, he could divorce his wife and marry the one he liked. By contrast Shammai was a conservative. He said that divorce could only be obtained on the grounds of sexual immorality. As you can imagine, a lively debate raged between those two groups. With that background, we turn to the text:

When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, ’’Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” (1-3).

The key is the last phrase-“any and every reason.” When the Bible says they came to test him, it really means they came to trap him-to force him to choose sides. If he sided with Hillel, that would be popular with the liberals; if he sided with Shammai, the conservatives would love him. That’s what I mean when I say the question was insincere. They weren’t seeking the truth, just trying to force Jesus into a corner.

II. A Biblical Reply: 4-6

I find it very interesting that in his reply, Jesus quotes the book of Genesis. Specifically he quotes Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. He combines them together to make two points: First, marriage between a man and a woman was God’s idea. Second, marriage is meant to be a lifetime commitment. The Pharisees asked about divorce, but Jesus replied by talking about marriage. He wouldn’t be drawn into their little debating game.

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ’made them male and female,’ and said, ’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?’ So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (4-6).

This is hugely important for the many social issues in our day. Marriage from God’s point of view is always one man with one woman joined in a legal union for life. This rules out so-called gay marriage since it is always outside the will of God. It is always wrong because it perverts the divine design given by God in the Garden of Eden. In the beginning God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve or Alice and Eve. Second, this passage also shows us how Christ regarded the Old Testament. He understood it as the literal Word of God and thus absolutely authoritative. Third, this passage also teaches us how to approach the book of Genesis-as literal truth. When you read Genesis 1-2, you need to read it the way our Lord did-not as myth or legend, but as actual, historical fact. The man and wife of verse 4 are Adam and Eve-the first two human beings on the face of the earth.

Fourth, and most importantly, this passage establishes the permanency of marriage in the strongest possible terms when it says, “What God has joined together, let man not separate” (6). This simply means that divorce was never part of God’s original design. God didn’t think up divorce, we did that all by ourselves. This means that divorce always represents a failure at some point in the marriage relationship. As we will see in a moment, not every divorce is sinful, but sin is always involved in every divorce.

Before going any further, I think we must say plainly that this answer by Jesus is not a “soft” or “easy” answer. This is tough love in action. Sometimes in our desire to make people happy, or to relieve them of their very real pain, we have unwittingly disobeyed verse 6 by separating what God joined together. Sometimes we do this by encouraging divorce, sometimes by joining unhappy spouses in criticizing their mates, and sometimes by turning away and refusing to challenge those who rush to divorce without any biblical justification. And sometimes we just wash our hands of the ugliness and say, “I can’t get involved.” By doing nothing, we thus encourage the culture of divorce inside the church.

When the Pharisees asked Jesus, “What do you think about divorce?” he responded to them by saying, “What do you think about marriage?” Divorce isn’t the issue, marriage is. God sees marriage as two people becoming one, committed to one another, in a covenant relationship that lasts a lifetime. Until you understand that, you aren’t ready to talk about divorce at all.

III. A Second Tricky Question: 7

I said this was a tough answer. The Pharisees definitely took it that way. Instead of taking the bait and choosing sides, Jesus had ignored their question and gone right to the heart of the issue-God’s original design in marriage. So now the Pharisees ask a second question-this one even trickier than the first:

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (7).

The background of this question comes from Deuteronomy 24:1-4 where Moses laid down some basic principles regarding divorce and remarriage. This was a central passage in the debate between Hillel and Shammai because the passage speaks of “some uncleanness” the husband discovers in the wife. But it doesn’t define that term, which is why Hillel took it to mean almost anything the husband didn’t like and Shammai restricted it to sexual immorality. The key word in the question is the word “command.” Why did Moses command a man to give his wife a certificate of divorce? Good question. There’s only one problem: God never commanded a man to do that. That’s not in Deuteronomy 24. So it’s a bogus question based on a deliberate distortion of the Bible.

IV. A Biblical Clarification: 8-9

In order to understand Jesus’ answer, let’s break the text down into four basic observations.

A. Command vs. Permission

First, Jesus begins by correcting their distortion of the text. He reminded them that “Moses … permitted you to divorce your wives” (8). Do you see the crucial difference? The Pharisees used the word “command” and Jesus used the word “permission.” There’s a world of difference between what God commands and what he permits. The Pharisees were saying that God commanded divorce. Jesus said, No, God permitted it, but he never commanded it. God’s original plan was that married couples would never divorce.

B. The Hardness of your hearts

Second, Jesus now goes to the heart of the issue when he reveals the reason behind Deuteronomy 24. Moses gave that instruction “because your hearts were hard.” In one phrase Jesus swept aside all their cheap, selfish excuses and exposed the real reason behind every divorce-a hard heart.

These words of Jesus are just as true today as they were 2000 years ago. Nothing has changed. Human hearts are still hard and that’s why our divorce courts are backlogged. Christian hearts are hard, which is why divorce has invaded our churches.

C. Original Intent

Third, Jesus goes on to remind them once again of God’s original design: “But it was not this way from the beginning” (8). God instituted marriage before the Fall; man devised divorce after the Fall. If you want proof of universal sinfulness, visit any divorce court and listen to the arguments, the accusations, the veiled threats, the struggle over money, property, alimony, and child custody. None of this was part of God’s original design for humanity.

D. A warning against improper remarriage

Fourth, Jesus now gives a stern warning against improper remarriage: I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (9).

For a moment, set aside the little phrase “except for marital unfaithfulness.” We’ll come back to that soon. If you leave the phrase out, Jesus is saying that a man who divorces his wife and then remarries another woman commits adultery. (By the way, in the parallel passage in Mark 10:1-12, the exception clause does not appear, suggesting that sometimes Jesus included it and sometimes he didn’t.) How can that be? Because in God’s eyes if the divorce is improper, so is the remarriage. This means that God takes our wedding vows seriously. When you stand before a minister and pledge to be faithful “till death do us part,” God says Amen from heaven. And if you divorce on unbiblical grounds and then marry someone else, in God’s eyes you have committed adultery because you are still bound to your original vows.

Let me point out that the real issue here is not divorce but improper remarriage. This means that divorced men and women must be very careful about remarriage lest they end up committing adultery by the very act of remarriage.

E. One clear exception-porneia

Fifth, Jesus here gives us one clear exception to this total ban on divorce and remarriage. He says you are not to do it “except for marital unfaithfulness” (9). The Greek word is porneia. It’s a very common word (from which we get the English word “pornography”) and has a broad meaning. Sometimes it is translated as “adultery,” sometimes as “fornication,” and sometimes as “sexual immorality.” All those translations are correct. It basically refers to any pattern of sexual sin that has the effect of breaking the marriage vow. It certainly includes premarital sex, extramarital sex, adultery, prostitution, homosexuality and pedophilia. I would suggest that it may also include the habitual addiction to pornography.

This simply means that sexual immorality does provide grounds for divorce from God’s point of view. But remember, this is a permission, not a command. While God never commands his children to divorce, he does permit it when one partner has flagrantly violated their sacred marriage vows.

V. A Practical Application: 10

Where does all this leave us? Precisely where it left the disciples. The Pharisees had tried to trap Jesus into some kind of argument that would force him to choose sides. But Jesus rises far above that by emphasizing the divine intention that marriage is for life. Divorce is never anything other than a desperate last step to be taken when the marriage vows are broken by immorality.

As the disciples ponder all this, they uttered words we can all understand:

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (10).

That happens to be entirely correct. Even though most people want to be married, it’s better never to marry unless you are willing to abide by God’s standards. It’s better to be single than to wish you were.

Let me step aside from this passage and in light of the entire New Testament summarize the three legitimate biblical grounds for remarriage:

1. Death of the spouse (1 Corinthians 7:39-40)

2. Sexual immorality (Matthew 19:9)

3. Desertion by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:10-15)

I do not believe there are any other legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage given in the Word of God. If the question of spousal abuse is raised, several points might be made. First, the Bible does not directly address this issue. Second, nothing in the Bible prohibits a wife from removing herself (and her children) from an abusive situation for her safety-and theirs. In most cases, this will be the prudent thing to do. Third, a pattern of abuse may in the end be regarded as proof that a husband is in fact an unbeliever masquerading as a Christian. If he rejects all attempts to help change his abusive behavior, then he might fall into the category of an unbelieving spouse whose sin has the effect of destroying the marriage. Wise spiritual leaders and godly Christian counselors can help a wife make proper decisions in such cases.

To the Divorced

I would like to add a special word to those in our congregation who have been divorced. The words of Jesus in Matthew 19 apply especially to you. I know that many of you yearn to be married again-and for some of you, the sooner the better. But marriage isn’t necessarily better or easier the second or third time around. If you are divorced, no matter what the circumstances were, I urge you to seek the Lord, not another mate. You need time to heal, time to rebuild, time to learn to walk alone through life, time to grow spiritually, time to discover the riches of God’s amazing grace. If it is God’s will that you should remarry, then in God’s time he will bring it about. Don’t rush the Lord; he’s never in a hurry.

To the Never Married

That same word applies to all the singles in our congregation. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul plainly urges singles not to seek marriage but to serve the Lord right where you are. He even says, “Do not seek a wife” in verse 27 (although he also adds that if you do marry, you have not sinned-verse 28). Then he advises those who have wives to act as though they have none (29)-which means that dedication to Christ must come before dedication to your spouse.

None of this is meant to downplay the value of a Christian marriage. Hebrews 13:4 clearly tells us that marriage is an honorable estate. But you must not make an idol out of marriage and raise it to the point where your desire for marriage controls life. When that happens, something good (marriage) has become an idol for you.

To the Married

If you are married, I have two suggestions for you. First, commit yourself to be a man of God or a woman of God in your marriage. Husbands, that means loving your wife and laying down your life for her. Wives, that means respecting your husband and looking to him for leadership in your home. Second, put the word divorce out of your vocabulary. Just get rid of it. Rip it out of your personal dictionary. For the believer, it should simply never be an option. If you are truly committed to God and to each other, you can survive any storm that may come your way. I would like each husband to say to his wife, “Sweetheart, there is nothing you can do that will ever cause me to divorce you. And let the wives say that to their husbands. Then say it to each other in front of your children. This will cement your commitment by making it part of your family’s shared heritage.

A Word to the Whole Church

How should we as a congregation respond to the multitudes of divorced and remarried people in our midst? I like those little bracelets you see the teenagers wearing-the ones that say WWJD, which stands for What Would Jesus Do? We know how he treated the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). He forgave her, refused to condemn her, and said, “Go and sin no more.” He didn’t ignore her past, but he urged her not to dwell on it either. He gave her a new start and then challenged her to live a brand-new life.

Divorce is not the unpardonable sin to God and it shouldn’t be to us. Here’s a simple rule: We should be quick to forgive and slow to judge. Remember, we’re all in the same boat together-saved by the grace of God. Who are we to stand in self-righteous judgment over others because their sin is different than ours? That doesn’t mean lowering the standard, but it does mean having the heart of a forgiving God. If divorced and remarried people don’t feel comfortable in the church, perhaps that says more about us than it does about them.

Put Jesus First

The teaching in all this is very clear even if we sometimes wonder about the details. Christ must come first in every area of life. He must come before our dreams, our desires, our plans and our hopes. Christ must be first! He must be Lord of all that we are and have. You must not make marriage more important than Jesus, and you must not make your personal pain preeminent over God’s Word. And for most of us, we must resist with all that is in us the prevailing divorce culture that elevates personal happiness above our marriage vows. Remember, God never called you to be happy but he did call you to be faithful. Here is the ultimate paradox: When we sacrifice faithfulness for happiness, we lose both; when we commit ourselves to faithfulness over happiness, in the end we gain both.

I do not suppose that what I have said today is easy to hear, but I am absolutely certain it is true to the Word of God. Marriage is for life. It only works when we follow God’s plan. If you can’t keep your vows, don’t get married. If you aren’t willing to live up to God’s standard, don’t get married. And in all things, make Jesus Christ the Lord of your life. Let him reign in every area. Submit your will to him. Wait on the Lord and you will be satisfied.

Remember the first rule of the spiritual life: He is God and we are not. Let God be God whether you are single, divorced or remarried. If you try to be God and make your own rules, you’ll end up wrecking your life and hurting other people.

One final word and then I’m done. What if you’ve already broken God’s rules for marriage and divorce and ended up in the ditch of life? Here’s the good news. God is God of redemption and new beginnings. Start where you are and seek the Lord with all your heart. If you have wronged anyone, such as an ex-spouse or your children, confess it and ask for forgiveness. Do everything in your power to seek reconciliation and healing. If you are on the verge of divorce, live in such a way that others will know that you did everything possible to save your marriage. Determine in your heart that from this day forward you will serve the Lord no matter what happens in the future. Don’t worry about getting married. Give God your future and let him lead you step by step. He will never turn you away if you are truly willing to do his will.

Your Greatest Need

Your greatest need has nothing to do with marriage at all. You need a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That applies whether you are single, married, divorced or remarried. You need the Lord. If your life is messed up because of bad choices you’ve made, you really need the Lord. The good news is that the worse you’ve messed up your life, the better candidate you become for the grace of God. He specializes in hopeless cases.

Perhaps you find yourself with that “hard heart” Jesus mentioned. You’ll never get rid of it on your own. What you need is a heart transplant-the kind only God can give you. No matter who you are or where you are or what circumstances brought you to this point, run to the cross of Christ. Lay hold of the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you. There you will find forgiveness, mercy and a brand-new heart.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?