What the Bible Says about Divorce – Selected Scriptures

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

October 25, 1998

What the Bible Says about Divorce

Selected Scriptures


When a society abandons God’s word as its standard of morality, then it will reap the consequences. The greatest threat to the family in our society is its dissolution through divorce. Our divorce rate is not high because families are decaying. Our families are decaying because so many husbands and wives are following their own will instead of God’s design for marriage and the family. This leads directly to family strife, divorce and then family dissolution. Divorce has a high cost financially, personally and for society since it erodes the foundation of a healthy society.

Last week I gave an overview of what Jesus said about divorce in Matthew 5:31,32 and we found it was in contrast to the self righteousness of the Scribes. They thought themselves to be righteous because they got their legal paper work done when they divorced their wives for whatever reason. This really was not much different than what goes on today. People now divorce for a whole host of reasons, but most people still try to justify themselves in doing so. He is this or she is that or "it is better for the kids" or we "we were just incompatible." (See: Dangers of Divorce).

The truth is that a divorce that occurs for reason other than what Jesus states here (Greek: porneia / porneia) just leads to more adultery. In Matthew 5:32 Jesus said that the man that divorces his wife for cause other than porneia / porneia "makes her commit adultery" and "whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." In Matthew 19:9 Jesus adds that "whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality (porneia / porneia) and marries another woman commits adultery." Un-biblical divorce increases adultery. That was Jesus’ point in Matthew 5:31,32 and the point of last week’s sermon.

This week I want to expand and look at other Scriptures that deal with divorce and see if we can come to an understanding about when divorce will not result in more adultery. Let me stress again that Jesus does not advocate divorce or give cause for divorce to occur. In both Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 Jesus only states one exception in which divorce would not increase adultery.

Matthew 19

Turn to Matthew 19 and lets first see God’s intention for marriage as well as why divorce was allowed in the Old Testament in the first place.

Verse 1: "And it came about that when Jesus had finished these words, He departed from Galilee, and came into the region of Judea beyond the Jordan; and great multitudes followed Him and He healed them there. And some Pharisees came to him, testing Him, and saying, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?"

Here we find some of the Pharisees have come to Jesus with the express purpose of "testing" Him. Their question in Matthew 19:3 is specifically designed to cause Jesus to lose favor with the people. They already knew that Jesus would give a very conservative answer because of what He said in Matthew 5:31,32. Their hope was that if Jesus publicly declared His view on this volatile issue, those who held to other views would no longer follow Him.

Remember there were three common views held by the Rabbis concerning divorce. Rabbi Hillel’s was the most popular view. He made the Mosaic Law self serving by teaching that a man could divorce his wife for nearly any reason, some of them very trivial, like burning or over salting the meal. Following Hillel’s lead, some Rabbis not only made divorce easy, but even taught that it was required. One Rabbi wrote, "If a man has a bad wife, it is a religious duty to divorce her."

Rabbi Shammai held the opposite view. He did not allow for divorce for any reason under any circumstance. This view was of course was very unpopular. The Pharisees hoped that Jesus might espouse this view and then been seen as narrow minded and intolerant and thus lose popularity.

The third view restricted divorce to only a few very specific reasons spelled out in the Law of Moses. Divorce was possible, but only under special circumstances.

The Pharisee’s question to Jesus is one that still interests many people who want to be both religious and get what they want too. They study the Scriptures to find sufficient cause to divorce. They want to know when they can bail out and get a different spouse. This is the way of self-righteous man. They have more interest in finding the loop-holes in the law in order to avoid compliance rather than seeking out the intent of the law so that they can follow it. No wonder that even within the conservative evangelical churches of America we find divorce is nearly as rampant as outside the church, and that divorce is justified for an increasingly greater number of causes. If that is the case with you, Jesus’ answer will greatly disappoint you.

Jesus does not answer the Pharisees question, but instead goes directly to the heart of the issue from God’s perspective. Look at Matthew 19:4. "And He answered and said, "Have you not read, that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, [Gen 1:27; 5:2] and said, ‘For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh’? (Genesis 2:24; Colossians 6:16]). Consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate."

Jesus does not espouse any of the views of the Rabbis on divorce, but instead goes back to Genesis to establish God’s original plan for marriage, a plan that has not changed. God’s moral will for marriage is one man and one woman joined together for life. They are to "cleave" together. Joined or "glued" together in such a way that they cannot be separated with out severe damage to both. Notice as well that Jesus says that it is God that joined the two together. Marriage is right and honorable before God for it is in keeping with His original commandments to mankind. When man does not follow God’s design, then he will incur the negative consequences of his actions.

Jesus reply to the Pharisees goes to the root of their problem, a problem many people still have. They were not interested in God’s will, only their own and how they might be able to do their own will while still proclaiming themselves to be religious and good.

You would think that the Pharisees would be wise enough to back off at this point, but instead they press the issue in Matthew 19:7, "They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate and divorce her?" Their reference is to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which we looked at last week. It does not command divorce, but rather commands the paper work to be done and restricts a man from re-marrying a woman he divorced that had married another man and was now a widow or divorced again. The passage is a restriction on re-marriage. However, men have concentrated more on the question about what the indecency was that was found in her in order to justify their practice of divorce than the point of the passage. It is this debate about what the indecency might be that has led to the differing views on divorce. Jesus clarifies in vs. 8 & 9.

Matthew 19:8m "He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart, Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way." Jesus again goes to the heart of the issue. Divorce was not commanded, it was permitted, and only then because of the hardness of their hearts. It is still the same today. Divorce occurs because of the hardness of men’s hearts. Hearts that are hard toward the things of God, of following His will, of avoiding infidelity, of repentance and forgiveness. Because some men (and women) would become hard of heart and would not follow God’s design, God through Moses permitted divorce, but it was not His original plan for man.

In Matthew 19:9 Jesus partially answers their question. He says, "And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." Jesus still does not give a cause for divorce. He does not say "you may divorce your wives for the cause of immorality." Jesus does not sanction divorce. Instead He points out again that divorce results in more adultery. The exception clause deals with the one case, that of porneia / porneia where divorce does not result in additional adultery.

What then does porneia / porneia refer too? Get ready to write down the references I am going to give. There is a lot of confusion on the issue of divorce and remarriage and most of it is because personal opinions are being espoused rather than looking at all of what Scripture says on the topic.

Clear Statements on Divorce

Primary in understanding the interpretation of any passage is that clear passages govern difficult passages. What is clear in Scripture in regards to divorce?

1) Marriage is intended to be permanent (Genesis 2:24 cf Matthew 19:4-8)

2) God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16).

3) God only commanded divorce in one unique situation – Ezra 10. The priests had married foreign wives contrary to Mosaic law and were in danger of forfeiting their priesthood.

4) God allowed for divorce in certain situations

a) Exodus 21:7f – a Hebrew slave that is made a wife of her master, but her husband does not perform his marital duties. She can leave him with no money being paid to redeem her as a slave.

b) Deuteronomy 21:10f – a woman captured during a war that is then made the wife of one of the men of Israel and then he has "no delight in her" can be released to "go wherever she will", but she cannot be sold as merchandise (booty – a slave) because she has been "humbled."

c) Deuteronomy 24:1 – no favor in husband’s eyes because of some indecency in her.

5) God regulated divorce in certain situations and said it could not take place. The implication is that in other situations it could take place.

a) Deuteronomy 22:13-19. A man who marries a woman and then turns against her and defames her, claiming he did not find her a virgin when he married her. If her parents bring out the proof of her virginity then the man is to be chastised and fined (The fine is given to the girl’s father), and "she shall remain his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days."

b) Deuteronomy 22:28-29. A man who finds a virgin that is not engaged and then seizes her, lies with her, and then they are discovered. He is to pay the girl’s father a fine (essentially a dowry) and "she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days."

c) Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as above: A woman divorced then married to another cannot return to the first husband even if second husband divorces her or dies.

6) Divorced people are treated differently in certain circumstances.

a) Leviticus 21:7,14. A priest could not marry either a harlot or a divorced woman. He could only "marry a virgin of his own people."

b) Leviticus 22:13. A priest’s daughter who is widowed or divorced and had no children of her own to support her could return to his home and "eat of her father’s food; but no layman shall eat of it."

c) Numbers 30:9. The vow of a woman could be annulled by her father or husband if married, but the widow and the divorced woman would be held to their vows.

7) God uses the analogy of divorce to express his dealings with Israel at the time of the captivities (Isaiah 50:1f & Jeremiah 3:1-10)

The Meaning of porneia / porneia

With all this in mind lets now try understand what Jesus says in Matthew 5:32 & 19:9. In our limited time I cannot be completely exhaustive, but I will cover the major arguments of the various views. Keep in mind that no matter what view I personally take, there would be those that would disagree. However, I am comfortable and confident that the view I take has the strongest backing of Scripture. I have studied this particular subject for a long time and while the majority is not always right, it is still comforting to be in agreement with the vast majority of conservative Biblical scholars of the past century.

Some hold to a view that the Bible teaches no divorce at all. Yes, that is God’s original intent for marriage, but from the passages already cited we must conclude that it is not true. In addition Matthew 1:19 cites Joseph as a "righteous man," yet he desired to put Mary away secretly. The phrase "put away" in that verse is the Greek word for divorce, which is what Joseph would have to do legally since he and Mary were already betrothed to each other. In Jewish law they were legally bound in marriage though it had not been consummated yet.

What was Jesus referring to by the word mean porneia / porneia? It is the most general Greek word for sexual sin. We get words such as pornography from it. There are five major views on what Jesus meant by it, but before I look at them individually, I want to point out something true about all of them. Every single view would require the death of the one committing the sexual sin if the Old Testament Law was strictly followed.

Leviticus 20:20, among other passages, requires death in the case of adultery. It says, "the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death." Premarital intercourse required the same penalty. Deuteronomy 20:21,22 says that if a girl who was supposed to be a virgin had played the harlot and was found not to be a virgin at her marriage, then she was to be taken to the doorway of her father’s house and stoned to death. Deuteronomy 20 goes on to say that in the case of rape she was exempted from this penalty if she was engaged. If she was not engaged, as I have already mentioned, she would become that man’s wife unless the father absolutely refused, and after she became his wife he could not divorce her all his days. Leviticus 20 covers a host of other sexual sins including incest; sexual sin with "too near relations" such as in-laws, step-parents, step-children and step-siblings; homosexuality and bestiality. All of those require the death penalty.

Some view porneia / porneia here as a reference to adultery only. However, if Jesus had meant only adultery he would have said adultery, for there is a specific word for adultery. In fact, Jesus uses that very word in the verse as the consequence of divorce apart from porneia / porneia.

Some view porneia / porneia here as a reference to premarital sexual intercourse, i.e. the woman was supposed to be a virgin and turned out not to be one. The main problem with this view is that the context does not justify such a narrow, limited definition for such a general word.

Somewhat similar is this view that porneia / porneia here refers to sexual sin during the betrothal period but before the wedding. The strength of this view is the fact that Matthew was written to Jewish people and he had already presented Joseph as a righteous man even though he had sought to quietly divorce Mary after he found out she was pregnant. This view allows Joseph to continue to be considered a righteous man while for all practical purposes eliminating any reason for divorce. Of course a general definition of porneia / porneia also allows Joseph to be considered righteous. In addition neither the immediate context nor the context of the referenced passage in Deuteronomy 24 indicate such a restricted definition and therefore it is doubtful that the those listening to the Sermon on the Mount or the Pharisees in Matthew 19 would have understood it that way.

Another view held by a few is that porneia / porneia here is a reference to marriage to too near a relative – consanguinity. This is a very confusing view and it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to even follow its arguments. Leviticus 18 is used as a list to define "the too near relationships," however the list of immoralities in Leviticus 18 better fits a general definition of porneia / porneia. It includes general adultery (vs 20), child sacrifice in idolatry (vs 21), homosexuality (vs 22) and bestiality (vs 23). There is nothing to indicate those hearing Jesus would have understood porneia / porneia to refer to only a few of the immoralities in Leviticus 18 and not all of them.

I believe the correct view is to understand porneia / porneia in its common meaning of general sexual immorality and perversions. This would include adultery, premarital fornication, incest, homosexuality and bestiality. All of these are included in the listings of Leviticus 18 & 20 as immoralities. porneia / porneia is the general category under which adultery fits. Every lexicon shows this to be true. To single any narrower meaning, one particular sexual sin as opposed to the others, would have to be demonstrated by the context. The context in both Matthew 5 & 19 is general. There is nothing in them to indicate that those listening would have understood anything other than the general meaning of the word. If Jesus’ concern was to narrow the meaning of the exception clause then why did He use the most broad term available for sexual sin? In addition, Jesus’ limitation to the Scribes and Pharisees interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1 to only sexual sins was a great restriction to them, and that in itself explains why there was such shock at his statement.

Divorce for cause of sexual immorality is an extension of God’s grace to the sinner. The Mosaic law demanded death for such sin, but even by the time of Joseph and Mary divorce was an acceptable substitute for death. Mary was betrothed to Joseph and therefore considered married. She was pregnant by someone other than Joseph, and she made no claim to being raped. The penalty in Deuteronomy 22 was death, yet Joseph was seen as righteous even though he seeking to divorce her instead of carrying out that penalty.

God in his grace and mercy was allowing divorce to substitute for the death that should have occurred. The practice may have come from God’s own example in Isaiah 50 and Jeremiah 3 in which God says He divorced Israel because she played the harlot with false gods. She (Israel) was adulterous (Jeremiah 3:8). The analogy should have demanded the death of the nation. Instead, God is merciful and gracious and though He divorced her (the captivity period), God would not be angry forever and calls them back to repentance and returning to Him (Jeremiah 3:12f). The indication of a change in the practice of the Law is also seen when the woman caught in the act of adultery was brought before Jesus. He did not exact the penalty of death upon her, but instead called her to repentance and to sin no more (John 8:4-11).

The exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 is a general reference to sexual sins including adultery, premarital fornication, incest, homosexuality and bestiality. All of these items break the monogamous nature of the marriage relationship. In marriage the two are to cleave and be one flesh. 1 Corinthians 6:15,16 indicates that sexual intercourse joins two into one and that sexual sin break the monogamous relationship and makes it polygamous. "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says, "The two will become one flesh." This is the reason for the exception. It is God’s grace and mercy extended to the sinning partner that he or she is not put to death as the Old Testament Law demanded.

Remarriage is assumed in both passages. In Matthew 5:32 the man who divorces his wife for cause other than sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery because it is assumed she will remarry. The exception clause of porneia / porneia is the exception to committing adultery in remarriage after divorce occurs – not an instance Jesus approving divorce.

God’s plan for marriage is that it should be lifelong and monogamous. Though Jesus permits divorce under the one exception, that of sexual immorality, He does not command it. If it divorce does occur, Jesus says it is because of the hardness of our hearts.

I Corinthians 7

There is one other passage I must quickly refer to before we conclude this morning. In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul deals with marriage. In that passage he makes some significant statements concerning marital separation – not divorce because he does not use the word for divorce there. 1 Corinthians &:10, "But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband 11 (but if she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not send his wife away." Stop. The Scripture leaves room for separation. You do not have to stay with an abusive spouse. Such a person should be put in jail. The church is to be a haven for the abused, not a place that tries to force such people back into a dangerous situations. The problem has to be corrected before reconciliation can take place.

1 Corinthians 7:12, "But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. 13 And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. 15 Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such [cases,] but God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?"

When an unbelieving spouse refuses to live with you because they can’t stand your living for Christ, then you can let them go.

We should take all this as a serious warning about seeking a reason to get divorced. As Christians we should have a commitment to marriage that reflects God’s original design, so that if divorce occurs, it is because the other spouse has become hardened in heart and committing sexual sin. That other person is already an abomination before God because of his or her sin. If divorce occurs because of that, then the "innocent" party of the divorce is not guilty of adultery if he or she re-marries.

But even in that situation, keep in mind the example of Hosea who was willing to forgive and kept seeking reconciliation with a wife who was a prostitute. Remember also Jesus’ example of forgiveness in Matthew 18. When we remember that we have been forgiven much, we should also forgive much. A characteristic of true righteousness is mercy. That is how each of us are to respond so that if divorce does occur, it is because our spouse has become hardened in heart. That is also how we respond to fellow believers who have been through divorce even if they were the guilty party. Forgiveness should be given to all those who repent from sin, with adultery and divorce being no exceptions. There may still be consequences, but forgiveness should be extended. And when God washes, sanctifies and justifies someone in our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6), then they are new creatures and clean (2 Corinthians 5:17).


We have not discussed every passage dealing with divorce, but we have dealt with the heart of the matter. In light of that I want to let you know how I strive to put into practice the ramifications of what Jesus says.

1) I never counsel anyone to divorce, even if it appears that if they did, there would be no adultery on their part (since their spouse committed sexual sin).

2) I may counsel for separation under certain circumstances. In some situations I may also counsel that legal actions be pursued.

3) I encourage reconciliation or at least an openness to it until there is no longer a possibility of that (death or remarriage by the spouse). This is in accordance with Paul’s directives in 1 Corinthians 7:11 and the example of Hosea.

4) When a professing believer seeks a divorce for reason other than sexual sin on the part of the spouse, I pursue church discipline because they are breaking a clear command of Christ and compounding sin.

5) Remarriage is on a case by case basis. Factors involved are the circumstance of the divorce, who committed what sin, whether they were Christians at the time, the possibility of reconciliation with the former spouse, and their own walk with the Lord.

Let me close with what I said last week. Divorce is a terrible tragedy. There is a high cost financially, personally, and spiritually. It destroys God’s plan for the family. Divorce will almost always have lasting effects that cannot be changed, but God can heal and restore people damaged by divorce and make them useful to in His kingdom, and that is regardless of what particular sin was committed or who committed it. Divorce is not the unforgivable sin. Divorce is caused by sin, but it is not a sin to be a divorced person. Anyone that looks down on another Christian just because they have been divorced is in the same danger of self-righteousness as the Scribes and Pharisees. About 1/4 of our church families have been through divorce. I praise the Lord that through His grace and mercy these people are part of our church and serving the Lord alongside everyone else in striving to reach our

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