Is It Lawful to Divorce?

“Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?’” (Matthew 19:3). Jesus’ answer did not please everyone then, nor will it now. It is the truth, however, the standard by which we will be judged. It is vital that we hear it.

The Lord took His questioners back to the very beginning. God created male and female (Genesis 1:27) and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Jesus then added, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (vv. 4-6). Divorce is nowhere in this picture. It is not God’s will and must not be done.

The Pharisees immediately objected. Jesus’ answer did not take into account Moses’ instruction regarding divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Had He overlooked that? Not at all. “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’” (v. 8). The allowance for divorce made in the Law of Moses was temporary. It was neither from the beginning nor until the end. The next verse makes that clear.

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (v. 9). Jesus equated remarriage following a divorce with having an extra-marital affair. Why? Because in both cases, God has bound us to one person, but we, without His permission, have joined with another. It is a graphic statement of the futility of man trying to undo what God has done, precisely what Jesus said in v. 6 we must not do!

Some manuscripts include this additional remark: “and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Jesus had said that earlier (Matthew 5:32).

Verse 9 does indicate that there is an exception to the no-divorce rule: a divorce for sexual immorality or fornication. Jesus had also said that earlier (Matthew 5:32). Note the emphasis in that reference: “for the reason of sexual immorality.” Fornication must be the reason for the divorce, not a secondary consideration. Nor may it be something that a man merely suspects, or perhaps even hopes, his wife is guilty of so he can “legitimately” get rid of her!

Jesus’ disciples were astounded by His answer (v. 10). It was easy enough to understand, but they were thinking about how hard it might be to apply. Jesus acknowledged that, yet He did not soften His words. Some might well have to make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (v. 12).

Instead of looking for ways to justify divorce, let’s work hard at making our marriages what they ought to be.

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