By Keith Sharp

It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:

But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery (Matthew 5:31-32).

Certainly this is a time when our news is filled with disturbing reports. Who can read of soaring inflation, threatening recession and climbing taxes without at least a twinge of anxiety? But one news item, often overlooked and relegated to the back pages of the newspaper, is far more disturbing to me than even the aforementioned crises, worrisome though they may be. Since 1960, the comparative rate of divorces to marriage in our nation has just about doubled-from about one divorce for every four marriages (which was certainly bad enough) to around one divorce for every two marriages. The grossly immoral practices of the American people stand in stark contrast to the pure teaching of the Master. What did Christ teach about divorce in the Sermon on the Mount?

The Master’s reference quoted in v. 31 is a direct allusion to the law of Moses (Deut. 24:1-4). Whereas Moses simply regulated an existing evil to mitigate its effects, Christ restored God’s original intention for the marriage relationship.

The first thing to notice is that in the old Mosaic dispensation the word adultery is not mentioned in the matter of divorce, for the good reason that under the law of Moses the punishment for adultery was death. Anybody under that law who was found guilty of adultery was stoned to death, so there was no need to mention it. The marriage had come to an end; but it was not brought to an end by divorce but by punishment by death . . . .

The whole object of the Mosaic legislation in this matter was simply to control divorce. The position had become entirely chaotic. This is what was happening. In those days, you remember, the men generally held a very low and poor view of women, and they had come to believe that they had a right to divorce their wives for almost any and every kind of frivolous and unworthy reason. If a man, for any reason whatsoever, was anxious to get rid of his wife, he did so. He brought forward some trumpery excuse and on the basis of that he divorced her. Of course the ultimate cause of it all was nothing but lust and passion. It is interesting to observe how, in this Sermon on the Mount, our Lord introduces this subject in immediate connection with the subject that went before it, namely, the whole question of lust . . . . The Mosaic legislation, therefore, was introduced in order to regularize and control a situation that had not only become chaotic, but was grossly unfair to the women, and which, in addition, led to untold and endless suffering on the part of both the women and the children.

In the main it laid down three great principles. The first was that it limited divorce to certain causes . . . . All the various excuses which men had been using and bringing forward were now prohibited. Before he could obtain a divorce a man had to establish that there was some very special cause, described under the title of uncleanness. He not only had to prove that, he had also to establish it in the sight of two witnesses. Therefore the Mosaic legislation, far from giving a number of excuses for divorce, greatly limited it. It dismissed all the frivolous, superficial and unjust reasons, restricting it to one particular matter.

The second thing it enforced was that any man who thus divorced his wife must give her a bill of divorcement. Before the Mosaic law, a man could say he no longer wanted his wife, and could turn her out of the house; and there she was, at the mercy of the whole world . . . Therefore, in order to protect the woman, this legislation provided that she should be given a bill of divorcement in which a statement was made that she had been dismissed, not because of unfaithfulness, but because of one of the reasons which had been discovered. It was to protect her, and the bill of divorcement was handed to her in the presence of two witnesses whom she could always call in case of need and necessity. Divorce was made something formal, something serious, the idea being to impress upon the minds of those people that it was a solemn step and not something to be undertaken lightly in a moment of passion when a man suddenly felt he disliked his wife and wanted to get rid of her. In this way the seriousness of marriage was emphasized.

Then the third step in the Mosaic legislation was a very significant one, namely, that a man who divorces his wife and gives her a bill of divorcement is not allowed to marry her again . . . . The whole force of that enactment is again exactly the same; it is to make these people see that marriage is not something you can walk in and out of at will. It tells the . . . husband that, if he gives his wife a bill of divorcement, it is a permanent enactment (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, I, pp. 254-255).

What was the situation among the Jews in Jesus’ day?

In all matters of Jewish law there were two schools. There was the school of Shammai, which was the strict, severe, austere school; and there was the school of Hillel which was the liberal, broad minded, generous school. Shammai and his school defined some uncleanness as meaning unchastity and nothing but unchastity. `Let a wife be as mischievous as the wife of Ahab,’ they said, `she cannot be divorced except for adultery.’ To the school of Shammai there was no possible ground of divorce except adultery and unchastity. On the other hand the school of Hillel defined some uncleanness in the widest possible way. They said that it meant that a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner by putting too much salt in his food, if she went in public with her head uncovered, if she talked with men in the streets, if she was a brawling woman, if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband’s parents in his presence, if she was troublesome or quarrelsome. A certain Rabbi Akiba said that eh phrase, if she find no favor in his sight, meant that a man might divorce his wife if he found a woman whom he considered to be more attractive than his wife.

Human nature being such as it is, it is very easy to see which school would have the greater influence. In the time of Jesus divorce had grown easier and easier, so that a situation had arisen in which girls were actually unwilling to marry, because marriage was so insecure.

When Jesus said this, He was not speaking as some theoretical idealist . . . . He was seeking to deal with a situation in which the structure of family life was collapsing, and in which national morals were becoming ever more immoral (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, 1, pp. 149-150).

Actually, both schools of Jewish thought were wrong on the meaning of the term “uncleanness.” The word meant “shame, filthiness, anything unclean (any defect found in a woman . . .)” (William Gesenius, Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, p. 653). It certainly could not refer to adultery, for the guilty party was to be put to death in -a case involving adultery (Deut. 22:22). Nor did it refer to anything that might happen to displease the husband. “The words suggest some immodest exposure or failure in proper womanly reserve” (Cambridge Bible Commentary.) However, the important point in this: Jesus was speaking at a time when marriage as an institution was on the verge of collapsing. Divorce was easy and often practiced. Young women put off or turned away from marriage because it was so uncertain. The situation was virtually identical to that existing in America today!

How did Jesus deal with this critical situation? Did he relax God’s law of marriage? Did he look for ways to excuse the prevalent immoral practices? No, emphatically not! Rather, he restored both marriage as an institution and the woman as a person to the lofty plane upon which God had originally placed them.

In Matthew 5:31-32, Christ deals with the effect of unscriptural divorce upon the innocent party. To fully understand his statement, it should be studied in the light of other New Testament passages which deal with this subject (Matt. 19:3-12; Mk. 10:1-12; Lk. 16:18; Rom. 7:1-3; and 1 Cor. 7:10-16). Christ replaced Moses’ law concerning divorce and remarriage with his own. It was God’s original plan that one man and one woman live together as husband and wife throughout life (Genesis 2:21-24; cf. Matthew 19:4-6). Because of the hardness of heart of the Jews of his day, Moses, in enacting civil legislation, relaxed God’s original intent for the marriage tie (Matt. 19:7-8; Mk. 10:4-5). But, even at that time, God hated divorce (Mal. 2:13-16). Jesus restored the marriage relationship to the high plane of permanence God intended for it from the beginning (Matt. 19:3-6).

Two great truths emphasize the holiness God intended for marriage. God never commanded anyone to divorce who was rightfully married in any dispensation, although He, even now, allows divorce and remarriage for one cause. Any time a marriage is dissolved for any reason other than death, at least one of the marriage partners has grievously sinned. Three essential facts touching the permanence of the marriage relationship are taught in Matthew 5:32.

The first one to notice is that fornication on the part of one’s mate is the only grounds for divorce and remarriage. Some take the rather novel view that “fornication” pertains only to unlawful sex involving those who are unmarried and that the grounds for divorce is premarital sex on the part of one’s mate, not infidelity to the marriage vows. The lexicons are, however, in agreement that “fornication” includes adultery in some cases and specifically cite Matt. 5:32 as one of those cases (cf. J.H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 532; W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, II, p. 125; W.F. Arndt (F.W. Gingrich, A GreekEnglish Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 699). This view is unacceptable because it makes incontinence before marriage a more serious breach of the marital convenant than infidelity to the vows once they have been entered into. “Fornication” in Matthew 5:32 refers to adultery on the part of one’s mate after the marriage has been contracted and is the only God-ordained grounds for divorce and remarriage.

The second key fact is that, if a man (the same principles of divorce and remarriage apply to the woman-Mark 10:12) divorces his wife for any cause other than fornication, he makes her an adulteress. Does this mean by the very fact she has been divorced she is an adulteress? This, of course, would be grossly unfair to the innocent party, who did not want the divorce in the first place and perhaps did all she could to prevent it. It would make even a single divorcee an adulteress. The Lord’s statement assumes that the put away woman will marry again. This is, of course, the case in the overwhelming majority of divorces.

The man who puts away his wife for a cause other than fornication puts her in a position where she is tempted to remarry, which would be to commit adultery (Matt. 19:9). Should she fall, he must bear the guilt for having placed a stumbling-block before her (Matt. 18:6-7). Often people say they will divorce and remain single. In the first place, few have the strength to remain single for long, although, under the stress of a bad marriage, they might think they will (cf. Cor. 7:9). Also, the person who divorces his mate is putting a stumbling-block before his partner she might not be able to overcome. It is a far better course to work out one’s troubles.

The third great fact is that the person who marries one put away also commits adultery. This was perhaps spoken in the Lord’s day because of those who seemed simply to be waiting to marry a woman as soon as she was divorced. (Which, by the way, is often the case now.) The statement is just as true today. If third parties would observe this injunction, perhaps the loneliness of separation would allow the divorced ones to soberly reflect upon their own mistakes and be reconciled. But remarriage hopelessly complicates matters.

God created woman and instituted marriage on a lofty plan. Sinful men degraded woman to a slave and marriage to polygamy and easy divorce for any cause. Moses made divorce more difficult and protected the interests of woman. Christ elevated both woman and marriage to their original positions of honor.

Marriage is a God-ordained relationship for a life-time. Woman is the help meet of man, an heir with him of eternal life. This is where all Christians must place both marriage as a relationship and the woman as a person both in their thinking and practice. Our nation, the church, our children and our souls are at stake.

Truth Magazine XXIII: 14, pp. 232-233
April 5, 1979