Posts Tagged ‘adultery’

Not too long ago we went through some basic teaching on Christian marriage and I want us to build on this from time to time. Today we look more specifically into what Scripture says about divorce and remarriage.

Let me say as I begin that many Christians have experienced the pain of divorce. Indeed I think that all of us have been touched by it directly or indirectly. So it’s difficult to talk about. Sometimes it’s easier to avoid the topic because we don’t want to cause more pain or seem to judge others. Yet I think we would all agree that whatever our past experiences have been, we need to know what Jesus has to say about this so that each of us can come to follow him better and so that we can teach our children what God’s will is for Christian marriage.

Now, it is entirely possible that not everyone will agree with everything I have to say today. (Not that that would be a first!) All I would say is that we need to ground our faith and practice on our best possible understanding of the Scriptures. And so I invite you to weigh what I say today, and I am certainly open to hear your points of view as well.

Our passage today is Matthew 19:3-9. This narrates an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees, which begins with –

A question about divorce and remarriage

3And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?’

By way of background it is certainly true that the Law allowed divorce, as we will see in a moment when we talk about Deuteronomy 24. (See also other places where it is assumed – Leviticus 21:7, 14; Numbers 30:9; Deuteronomy 22:29.) And in Jesus’ day divorce was relatively easy and there was no necessary stigma to it. In fact, the prevailing opinion was that the husband could divorce his wife, really “for any cause,” as it says here in v. 3. (In fact this phrase may be a technical phrase for the Hillelite “any cause” divorce as Instone-Brewer argues.) And yes, as you can tell by the wording in our verses, in a Jewish context it was the husband’s prerogative to divorce or not. This was true with few, if any exceptions – although a woman could seek to force her husband to divorce her through the court system.

One other key point of background. In Jesus’ day if you got divorced it was assumed that you would remarry. Jesus makes this assumption in 5:32. This comes out clearly in our passage when the topic of the “divorce certificate” comes up in v. 7. Ancient Jewish divorce certificates were quite explicit. They said, “Lo, you are free to remarry” (m. Git. 9.3). One of the key functions of the certificate was precisely to allow the woman to remarry, without being charged with adultery. So to divorce your wife was to set her free to marry someone else. This is the context we are working with. So this really is a discussion not just about divorce, but also about remarriage. And we need to understand this background.

Well, the Pharisees must have heard that Jesus held a strict view on divorce (5:31-32). And so they ask him this question to “test” him. As we will see, they want to pit Jesus against Moses on this issue. They want to discredit him. (Also, Jesus has just entered into the region of Herod Antipas [19:1-2] the man who had John the Baptist killed for criticizing his divorce and incestuous remarriage [14:3-12].)

Jesus begins his answer by going back to –

Genesis 1 and 2

He first quotes Genesis 1:27 (LXX) – 4He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning ‘made them male and female . . .’ So there are two of them – a male and a female.

Then he quotes Genesis 2:24 (LXX) as a statement of God.  5and (he) said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?’ So the two become one when they are married. They form a one flesh union. Jesus is asking, ‘haven’t you read this?’

Jesus himself draws out this conclusion in v.6 – ‘so they are no longer two but one flesh.’ A one flesh union is a sexual union, but it is more than just this. It is a mystical, spiritual union. It involves the merging and bonding of two people into one in every way. And this is God’s purpose in marriage, that two become one. (The emphasis on two in this text, following the LXX, not the Hebrew, is a statement against polygamy. It is two who are married, not more than two. It is two who come together – a male and a female. These two make a one flesh union.)

Then Jesus comes to his central teaching – ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.’ In the setting in Genesis 2, it is God who oversees or performs the wedding. God is the officiant. It is he who speaks the words of Genesis 2:24, according to Matthew. And this is really so in any Christian marriage service. And so Jesus’ argument is this – if God has made two into one, no mere human should make the one back into two. The implication is, who are you to go against what God has done?

In the context of a Christian marriage Jesus here clearly commands, don’t separate a one flesh union. This much is plain so far, although Jesus has more to say.   

Having heard this, the Pharisees pounce, quoting –

Deuteronomy 24:1

7They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?’

(Some ancient versions have the translation, as here, that Moses commanded the writing of a certificate. Most translations today have it as one of a series of conditional statements. See the Peshitta, Pseudo-Jonathan Targum of Deuteronomy and Josephus Ant. 4.253. Also see Matthew 5:32)

If you look at Deuteronomy 24:1-4 Moses does allow divorce and thus remarriage on fairly vague grounds, for “some indecency.” This didn’t refer to adultery because adultery was punished by death, which, of course, ended the marriage.

The question the Pharisees bring to Jesus is simple, do you disagree with Moses?? This would discredit Jesus among his Jewish audience.

Jesus gives his answer. 8He said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.’

This was a concession for spouses, especially husbands, who were unwilling to make things work in a marriage. Hardheartedness is Jesus’ interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. (This would have been in the same ballpark at least in practice as Hillel’s interpretation – “for any cause.” In other words, Jesus accepts a broad interpretation of the grounds for divorce in Deuteronomy 24 and for the meaning of “some indecency”)

(Nothing should be made of the contrast here between the Pharisees’ statement that Moses “commanded” and Jesus’ statement that Moses allowed. Jesus agrees that Moses commanded that you give the woman a divorce certificate if you divorced (Matthew 5:31; Mark 10:5. Notice that in Mark 10 the terminology is switched). The point is that the command to give a certificate of divorce is in the broader context of an allowance of divorce and remarriage. If you do divorce, give a certificate. Perhaps this isn’t as clear in Matthew’s version and so Jesus ends with, “Moses allowed you to divorce” to make things clear. Perhaps some took the command to give the certificate and to divorce as a command, so this protects from taking the last part of v. 7 as also being commanded.)

But God’s true will is revealed in Genesis, before the concession. This is what God actually wants, a life-long one flesh union. So Jesus is not in contradiction to Moses, he is simply removing a concession that was given for a time.

And then we come to –

Jesus’ answer on divorce and remarriage

 ‘9But I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.’ Jesus teaches here that if a man divorces his wife and remarries, he commits adultery (Mark 10:11; Luke 16:18).If we bring in other examples from Jesus’ teaching this is stated in various ways:

  • If a woman is divorced and remarries she commits adultery (Matthew 5:32).
  • The man who marries her commits adultery (Matthew 5:32; Luke 16:18).
  • If a woman divorces her husband and remarries, she commits adultery (Mark 10:12 which could happen according to Roman law).

Why is there adultery in all these cases? Well, just because a man writes a certificate of divorce doesn’t mean that the couple is divorced in reality. Marriage is based on a one flesh union, not simply a legal contract. And a legal document doesn’t nullify a one flesh union. So if you are still one flesh, the consummation of the second marriage is an act of adultery against the first. This explains all the examples that Jesus gives of divorce and remarriage leading to adultery.

But there is an exception, found in what’s called the exception clause. It is stated here and also in Matthew 5:32. It says, “except for sexual immorality.” The phrase “sexual immorality” is from the Greek word, Porneia. It is a very broad term that can cover any kind of wrong sexual behavior.

There is a logic to all this. Jesus is saying that a one flesh union is created through a sexual act. And it is only a wrongful sexual act that can break it. Not a legal document, but a wrongful sexual act. (Thus also Jesus doesn’t need to deal with the provisions found in Exodus 21:10 for divorce, since not providing food, clothing and oil (or marital rights) does not break a one flesh union. Although certainly these things would need to be dealt with by the Christian community to protect a spouse in this situation. See Ephesians 5:25-30; 1 Corinthians 7:3-5)

So Jesus is entirely consistent in his position. 1) Don’t break a one-flesh union that God has joined together. (Some one flesh unions are not of God, e. g. 1 Corinthians 6:15-18)

2) But if it is already broken through the unfaithfulness of your spouse you may divorce. In this case the divorce doesn’t break (or try to break) a one flesh union, it only recognizes that it has already happened. You don’t have to divorce. There can be repentance, restoration and reconciliation. But it is allowed. It is not an act of unrighteousness. Just as Joseph was a “righteous” man even while he sought to divorce Mary for sexual immorality – until the angel told him that it was not sexual immorality. (They were married even though betrothed. To be with another was considered adultery and divorce was necessary to end the union, Matthew 1:18-20). (Note that God did divorce Israel, the Northern tribes – Hosea 2:2, he did not divorce Judah, even though “she” deserved it.)

3) Since in this last case, it is a legitimate divorce, you may remarry. There is no adultery in this case since the one flesh union has already been severed by your first spouse.

Now, this leaves a lot of questions unanswered, I know. And we could wish that Jesus had said more. For instance, what about if you are married to an unbeliever? Paul gives some different counsel in 1 Corinthians 7. And, what if you have already divorced and remarried wrongly? What should you do? There would have been many people in Jesus’ day in this situation also.

The questions go on and on. I plan to have a handout for you that will address some of these soon. What we need is wisdom. Wisdom to understand Jesus’ teaching and wisdom to know how to sort through what he doesn’t directly address. And we need compassion for those who have suffered the pain of divorce.

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