In the beginning…” Thus begins the biblical account of creation in Genesis 1:1. The creation of man and woman, made in the very image of God, served as the crowning act of God’s masterpiece (Gen. 1:27). Genesis 2:21-24 elaborates further on the creation of woman from the rib of Adam, and culminates in the first marriage, officiated by God Himself as He presented Eve to Adam as his wife. In the act of creating marriage, God also established the law that would define and govern marriage from that time forward. This law is simple and succinct yet powerful. It is stated as follows:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24, NKJV).
Marriage, as defined by God’s word, is a wonderful and beautiful union of a man and a woman. It is the foundation of the family unit. God intends that marriage lasts as long as both spouses are alive. Only upon the death of one of the spouses may marriage be dissolved with honor. Unfortunately, not all marriages last a lifetime. Far too often, marriages end in divorce. This fact has generated much confusion about God’s law concerning divorce and remarriage. Lending to that confusion is the fact that many pulpits are silent on the issue. To deal with the complications that arise from divorce and subsequent marriages is very hard on all involved. It can be very emotional for those within the marriage. It is difficult on the preachers and elders who seek to address those situations that are not in harmony with God’s word. However hard it may be, faithful preachers and elders will seek God’s will on this matter, teach it, and practice it so that members of the flock will be able to understand what they must do to be pleasing to God.
The Pharisees looked for any opportunity to entrap Jesus and discredit Him before others. Jesus was approached by Pharisees who questioned Him about divorce and remarriage (Matt. 19:3-12). While their motives may have been less than honorable, the answer Jesus gave to their question teaches us clearly God’s will on the subject. The question asked was, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” (Matt. 19:3). The law to which they referred was the Law of Moses. Jesus did not go to the Law of Moses to answer their question. He went beyond the Law of Moses to the marriage law God instituted at creation. He began His answer with these words, “Have you not read?” God has spoken. His law concerning marriage and divorce has been clearly and explicitly given. Jesus ended the discourse on this subject with these words, “He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Matt. 19:12). The mixed messages, division, and confusion that exist concerning doctrine on marriage, divorce, and remarriage is not because God’s word is not clear. It is because people have chosen to not accept it.
Jesus referred to God’s law given in Genesis 2:24. One man and one woman are joined by God to become one in marriage. He goes on to say, “Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6). This is a command. This is law. Divorce is forbidden by Jesus. There is an exception to this law given by Jesus in Matthew 19:9, but before one attempts to understand the exception to the law they must first understand the law. God’s marriage law forbids divorce. Divorce (except for fornication) is a sin. It is a sin because it is the breaking of the Lord’s command (Matt. 19:6). It is a sin because it is the breaking of a vow to God (Eccl. 5:4-5). It is a sin because it is the breaking of a vow to one’s spouse (Mal. 2:13-14). Divorce is against the nature of God; therefore, He hates it (Mal. 2:16).
The Pharisees were not satisfied with the answer Jesus gave. They attempted to justify themselves by distorting the Law given by Moses. They asked, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” (Matt. 19:7). They sought to put the words of Christ at odds with the Law of Moses. Yet Jesus reminded them that Moses did not command divorce, but rather permitted it because of “the hardness of your hearts” (Matt. 19:8).
“And I say unto you…”
Stop right there. Think about what is happening here. Jesus, the Lawgiver, is stating what is law. He is not giving a new law, nor is He appealing to Mosaic Law. He is going back to the law of marriage instituted in the Garden of Eden when God created marriage. This law transcends all dispensations. Jesus verifies that when He states, “…but from the beginning, it was not so” (Matt. 19:8). Now He carries this law forward into the Christian dispensation as He states, “And I say to you…” (Matt. 19:9). This is the law Jesus gives concerning divorce and remarriage:
“And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery” (Matt. 19:9, KJV).
This was not the first time Jesus had established this law concerning divorce and remarriage. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had established His authority over what had previously been taught or believed concerning God’s will on certain matters of morality. After the Sermon on the Mount, the people were astonished because “He taught them as one having authority, not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:29). In that masterful sermon, Jesus had dealt with the question at hand concerning the giving of a certificate of divorce. When Jesus says “But I say unto you” in Matthew 5:32 or “And I say unto you” in Matthew 19:9, He is establishing the law going forward into the Christian dispensation. This is the law to which all are bound from that time forward. Read the words of the Master:
“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 for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (Matt. 5:31-32 KJV).
This author prefers the KJV or ASV translations of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 (as well as parallel verses) over the NKJV or ESV because the latter translations render porneia as “sexual immorality,” which is too broad in definition. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon defines porneia as “illicit sexual intercourse,” which is better conveyed by the word “fornication.” Also, both the KJV and ASV use the term “commiteth adultery,” which, though archaic, correctly signifies the ongoing state of adultery.
In both Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9, Jesus makes it clear that one who is divorced for any reason other than fornication does not have scriptural grounds to remarry. If that person does remarry, they commit adultery in that subsequent marriage. Adultery, by definition, can only occur when at least one party of an illicit union is bound by the marriage law to another. Jesus had stated in Matthew 19:9, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” It is God who joins two people in marriage. Only God can release that marriage bond. Though man may physically separate two spouses, he cannot release the marriage bond that God has created. Thus, if a person divorces their spouse for any reason other than that which Jesus permitted (fornication), and is married to another, that second union is illicit and adulterous because God has not released the marriage bond to their first spouse. To continue to live in such an illicit union is to continue to live in adultery. Jesus stated in Mark 10:11, “…Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” According to the words of our Lord, the subsequent marriage of a man who divorces his wife causes him to commit adultery against her. How can it be that in this situation a man is committing adultery against the woman he has divorced? The only reasonable answer is that God has not released him from the bond of marriage to his first wife. This is the only way it could be adultery against her (his first wife). Jesus goes on to say that the same is also true of the woman who divorces her husband and marries another man.
The scriptures studied here demonstrate that there is a valid reason for divorce. The innocent party who divorces their spouse because of fornication does so in harmony with God’s word. That innocent party has the right to remarry. That second marriage of the innocent party to a scripturally qualified person is a marriage joined by God. May God’s word always be our guide.
Michael serves on the board of directors for the Carolina Messenger and is the pulpit minister of the Boiling Springs Church of Christ in Boiling Springs, SC.