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Matthew 5:31-32 “Superior Righteousness, Part 3: Divorce”

It was also said, ‘Whoever sends his wife way must give to her a writ of divorce.’ So, I, even I say to you that everyone who sends his wife away except for grounds of fornication makes her to be adulterized. And whoever might marry a divorced woman adulterizes.

The abbreviated introductory formula is curious. While vv. 21&33 contain the full formula (You heard that it was said to the ancients…) and vv. 27, 38, and 43 are also abbreviated (you heard that it was said…) this remains the only statement that is abbreviated to such an extent. The post-positive δὲ is also curious as it implies that what was said (ἐρρέθη δὲ) is somehow connected with the discussion on adultery (vv. 27-30). Some might even suggest that the connection is so strong that the two (vv. 27-30 and vv. 31-32) should be taken together.[1] Yet, because Jesus uses the same formula (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν) to introduce His correction as before (vv. 22, 27) and after (vv. 34, 39, 44) it seems better to understand these two statements as conceptually connected (adultery and divorce) yet logically independent (two separate points working to advance the overall argument). In any event, Jesus provides a clue as to how these statements are to be understood. In v. 31 Jesus provides a pivot point from the law to its many practical implications. Because divorce is a natural extension from a discussion on adultery, these verses pave the way for the remaining three interactions, all of which flow from the 6th and 7th commandments.

To begin with, Jesus revealed how the scribes and Pharisees reduced the law of God to an external legal code (vv. 21-26). No human court is able to deal with sin and therefore what is needed is for sinners to repent. Then, He exposed the depth of the sin of adultery by building on the theme of legalism’s inadequacy (vv. 27-30). Because sin begins in the heart well before it manifests itself in desires or deeds, what is needed is a new heart rather than new hands. Now, Jesus is about to expose how the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is nothing more than the result of twisting the grace of God and transforming it into licentiousness.

Contemporary Conception (v. 31)

It was also said, ‘Whoever sends his wife way must give to her a writ of divorce.’

It is noteworthy and essential to our understanding that Jesus does not say “it is written” and then proceed to quote from previous revelation. While it is undeniably true that Jesus alludes to Deut. 24:1ff., it is also true that this cannot be called a quotation. Jesus has no bone to pick with the Father’s revelation of Himself as recorded in Deuteronomy chapter 24. Yet, Jesus has a great many bones to pick with how wicked men have interpreted and taught that revelation. His fight is with what the disciples have heard and what has been said, not at all with what has been written.[2]

Divorce as Defined by the Scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 5:31)

That Jesus refers to Deut. 24:1 is obvious, but even a casual comparison of Matthew 5:31 with Deuteronomy 24:1 reveals that Jesus is not quoting the Old Testament passage but is rather providing a summary of it.[3] At first glance, it becomes obvious that Jesus’ words are greatly more abbreviated than Moses’. The reason being that Jesus is not addressing the command as such, but rather the emphasis that the scribes and Pharisees placed on this command. To put it simply: the scribes and Pharisees limited the instruction on divorce to a simple matter of legislation. All that mattered was that one went through the proper channels and provided the correct documentation. After that, it was every man for himself.

Regarding the practice of divorce and its basis found in Deut. 24, there were two basic schools of thought in Jewish Palestine in the first century. The conservative school defined “indecency” (ἀσχήμων/עֶרְוָה) to any sort of sexual sin (ranging from premarital promiscuity to marital infidelity). The liberal school defined this indecency as anything that displeased the husband. Under this line of thinking, a man could divorce his wife because she burned his dinner, failed in her daily chores, did not gratify his sexual appetite, or if he found another prettier woman.[4] In other words, there was no singular reason one had to provide in order to divorce his wife. All that this liberal school required was the proper documentation. On this point they were great sticklers for the particulars. The proper document had to be drawn up and placed into the woman’s hands before he could send her away. The verb ἀπολύω literally means to loose from with the idea of releasing, pardoning, or cutting loose from a previous situation or obligation. The divorce notice (ἀποστάσιον) made official the cancelation of the marriage contract. It seems that the liberal school of thought was predominantly accepted, and divorce of this kind was widely practiced in Jesus’ day, for Josephus writes of divorce for “any cause (and many such causes happen among men)”.[5] As with murder, divorce was a simple legal matter to the scribes and Pharisees whereby one must provide the proper documentation. But is that what Moses intended?

Divorce as Defined by Moses (Deut. 24:1)

It is necessary to point out that Moses never wrote a command for Israel to divorce their wives. The context of Deut. 24:1-4 provides a prescription of how a divorce is to be carried out, but it says nothing of the requirement to do so. What is stated (and that quite plainly) is the reason for which one might divorce his wife. The reason a woman might not find favor in the sight of her husband is the fact that he has discovered indecency in her. The Hebrew noun עֶרְוָה translated here as “indecency” literally means “nakedness” (Gen. 9:22, 23; Ex. 20:26; Lev. 18:6-19). It’s related adjective עָרוֹם (naked) is the term used to describe the pre-fall state of Adam and his wife (Gen. 2:25). The term in question is used to describe sexual perversion (Lev. 20:17-21) as well as the necessity of exposing oneself to defecate (Deut. 23:14). The point then is not that the woman in question no longer pleases her husband but that he has discovered that she has exposed herself in some profane way. She has already violated the covenant of marriage by giving what belongs to her husband (her body) away to another. This limits the cause of divorce significantly to the arena of adultery and is thus much closer to the conservative school of though than the liberal. This makes much more sense once we understand the reason Moses bothered writing this command in the first place.

If marriage is supposed to be until death parts the two parties (and it is), then why did Moses bother writing a prescription for divorce in the first place? The answer is very simple: because divorce is not meant to dissolve a marriage so much as it provides a last chance for the offending party to repent. One must follow the logic of Deut. 24:1-4 all the way through. The scenario is of husband “a” divorcing his wife who then marries husband “b”. In the event husband “b” either dies or divorces the same wife, husband “a” cannot take her back. The reason for this law is simple: the wife never repented. If she had repented of her indecency, husband “a” would have been (a) obligated to take her back and (b) allowed to take her back under this law providing she repented before attaching herself to another. The fact that she married another man proves that she was hardened in her sin and never sought reconciliation with her husband.

Because marriage is ordained by God as a part of His kingdom program (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:7-25), we should assume that marriage reveals more about God than it does about human society. Marriage is used in both the Old Testament (Ezek. 16; Hos. 1-3; Jer. 3:1-14) and the New Testament (Matt. 22:1-14; 25:1-13; Rev. 21:1-22:5) to illustrate the nature of God’s relationship with His people. This connection is made painfully obvious in Paul’s own teaching on the union of marriage (Eph. 5:22-33). Interestingly enough, this writ of divorce (ἀποστάσιον) is mentioned only 4x in the Old Testament (Deut. 24, 1, 3; Is. 50:1; Jer. 3:8). Half of these references are contained to the same portion of Deuteronomy we have already discussed. The other two occurrences are found in passages that refer to God sending Israel away because of her unfaithfulness, yet with a promise of future restoration. Other than the present passage, the New Testament only uses the term when Jesus has a similar discussion with the scribes and Pharisees in chapter 19 and the companion passage in Mark 10:4. The point then is this: in both its theological significance and its practical application, divorce is not an irreversible termination of the marriage covenant so much as it is a last chance call for the unfaithful party to repent. The allowance for divorce affirms the purity and everlasting nature of marriage in a sin-cursed world. If church discipline is necessary in a context of supposedly redeemed individuals (and it is) then divorce has a precedence as long as infidelity exists. Not as a means to terminate a relationship, but as last-ditch effort to restore it.

Divine Decree (v. 32)

There are several things to keep in mind before progressing. First, Jesus framed this entire statement in close connection with vv. 27-30. In other words, Jesus connects the instruction in Deut. 24:1-4 to Ex. 20:14. This is an exposition on adultery more so than it is on divorce.[6] Second, we must maintain the concept of marriage as Scripture presents it. Most of what the Bible has to say on the subject is used as a picture to illustrate God’s relationship with His people. To focus on the relationship between a man and his wife without understanding that it is only a picture of God’s relationship with His people is to utterly miss the point and ultimately make the same mistake as the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus is teaching theology and faith, not morality and legalism. Finally, we must not overlook the fact that Jesus here provides His audience with divine revelation. The emphatic “So, I tell you” (ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν) claims authority. What follows cannot be a correction or alteration of any previous revelation, for the same God spoke both into being. Yet, we should not at all be surprised when Jesus’ words starkly contradict popular thinking and contemporary exposition. According to Jesus, an unlawful divorce (any divorced used outside of the prescribed boundaries) reveals the sinful and adulterous heart of man.

Sin of the Husband

So, I, even I say to you that everyone who sends his wife away except for grounds of fornication makes her to be adulterized

It is necessary to state at this point that Jesus is not providing an escape clause for a couple desiring divorce. This is further commentary on the 7th commandment and in short condemns any and every man who divorces his wife to get rid of her as an adulterer.

As in v. 28, Jesus uses a singular substantival participle (πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων – every one who divorces) to speak of any and every man who might divorce his wife. Jesus speaks of the divorcer in the same language he presented the “looker” who was guilty of adultery. In other words, both the “looker” and the “divorcer” are guilty of adultery. To appreciate this, the reader must follow the verbal sequence carefully. The infinitive μοιχευθῆναι (to be adulterized) is passive in voice and complements the present active verb ποιεῖ (he makes). The point is not that the husband forces his ex-wife into sin but that he sins against her. She is not guilty of committing adultery so much as she is the victim of his adultery. By divorcing his wife in an unlawful manner, he makes her to be adulterized just as the man who looks at a woman with the purpose of lusting for her adulterizes her (v. 28). He is the aggressor in the present scenario.

The exception (except for grounds of fornication) is an important part of this statement. The noun πορνεία (from where we get our English term pornography) is a general term that covers all sorts of sexual immorality from adultery to fornication and everything in between.[7] The concept here lines up rather well with Moses’ words in Deut. 24:1-4 and the indecency that displeases the husband. This is the only time divorce does not make the woman become adulterized because she would then be the offending party. In such a scenario, she would become the adulterer, not the victim. Jesus is not stating that such a divorce is allowable or commanded, but simply that such a divorce does not sin against the woman because she has already sinned against herself and her husband. To break covenant with one’s wife when she has remained faithful is to commit adultery. It is at this point that we must remind ourselves of the theological implications.

Marriage is supposed to picture the faithful and abiding love that God has for His people. The exclusive relationship a man has with his wife mirrors the exclusive relationship Yhwh has with His people. Idolatry in all its forms is equivalent to adultery in this sense. Israelite marriages were supposed to illustrate the love and devotion that Yhwh had for the nation (Ezek. 16:1-14). Yet, the nation grew rebellious and committed gross adultery against Yhwh by her idolatry (Ez. 16:15-34). As such, Yhwh sent her away (Ezek. 16:35-45; Jer. 3:6-10) so that she might repent and return to her husband (Hos. 2:6-7) and Yhwh will restore and redeem her (Hos. 2:14-20). Even the most faithless marriages can be restored as anticipated by God’s future restoration of His people, Israel.

One might wonder why Moses bothered with divorce in the first place when those who commit adultery were supposed to be executed (Lev. 20:10). If Israel is an adulteress, shouldn’t she die (Hos. 2:8-13; Ezek. 16:35-59)? Thus, the need for a substitute. The nation must die for their faithlessness to Yhwh . Yet they cannot die, for Yhwh promises to restore them. Thus, One must come to die in their place and be raised as proof of Israel’s future restoration. In other words, divorce undermines the gospel. Unlawful divorce makes a mockery of God and His plan of redemption by suggesting that either (a) God is capricious and changes His mind regarding the love He promises to His people or (b) God is graceless and merciless as He refuses to redeem those who have sinned against Him.

Sin of the Would-be Husband

And whoever might marry a divorced woman adulterizes.

It is interesting that Jesus carries His thought all the way through to a possible remarriage. Again, the scenario He presented is that of a woman who was unlawfully dismissed by her husband and now addresses the man who might marry her. Jesus says that he too is guilty of adulterizing her. At first glance, it may not be obvious as to the nature of this third-party’s guilt but when we remember (a) the original reference of Deut. 24:1-4 and (b) the nature of divorce as a means to urge repentance and reconciliation, it becomes clearer. Simply stated, the man that marries a divorced woman makes reconciliation with her first husband impossible. He has come in between her and her husband, another practice that undermines the gospel. What may seem like grace (marrying a woman in need of a husband) condemns and breaks off any attempt of reconciliation and restoration. It would be better if she returned to her first husband (Hos. 2:7; 3:1-5).

As we pull back and view these statements in the context of Jesus’ sermon, we see that the scribes and Pharisees have literally twisted the grace of God into licentiousness. Divorce is not an escape hatch to leave a marriage nor is it a weapon to reap retribution when one party acts unfaithfully. Rather, it is a tool of last resort to encourage repentance which is the beginning of restoration. Rather than mirroring God’s character and nature in their marriages, the scribes and Pharisees reflected pagan and demonic hedonism (Gen. 6:1-4; 19:1-11; Num. 25:1-9; Judges 19:22-26). Their incessant box checking form of religion created a caricature of God that Jesus immediately corrects. In so doing, Jesus doesn’t just correct the theology of the scribes and Pharisees, He indicts them of covenant infidelity. It is as if Jesus carries on the cry of Malachi against the wooden and unbelieving nature of the people. The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is woefully inadequate to deal with sin (vv. 21-26), cannot address the heart of the problem (vv. 27-30) and literally leads one to more sin rather than to restoration (vv. 31-32). The application is simple: Follow Jesus alone.

[1] Broadus, p. 111.

[2] Morris, p. 120.

[3] While most English Bibles correctly list Deut. 24:1ff. as a cross-reference, it may be better to not indicate that this is an Old Testament quotation with use of italics or small caps.

[4] Quarles, Sermon on the Mount, p. 125-8.

[5] Josephus, Josephus: The Complete Works, trans. William Whiston (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), Ant. 4.8.23 §253.

[6] Lenski, p. 230-3.

[7] Some English versions render πορνεία too narrowly (unchastity) and thus limit the idea Jesus presents to a discovery that a new bride is not a virgin. The term Jesus used is quite broad and thus should not be interpreted so narrowly. In fact, to do so utterly misses the point of Jesus’ statement.


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