Christ And Divorce

Christ And Divorce

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel in Dallas, Texas. He is also visiting Professor of New Testament at Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, Indiana. For most of January 1986 Dr. Johnson will be teaching at the new Tyndale Theological Seminary in Amsterdam, Holland.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 19:1-12


The twentieth century has been called The Age of Adultery, and its citizens have been called The New Adulterers. Now, of course, adultery is not new, nor is the philosophy of the New Adulterers new. The latter is as old as the history of philosophy itself. And the practice has been as universal as human nature itself. Adulterers have been young and old, poor and rich, crude and cultured, male and female, kind and cruel, brutish and gentlemanly, and religious and irreligious. They have been Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Pentecostal. They have been business men, business women, doctors, and preachers. Some repent, and some do not. What, then, is different about the present practice of the sin? It may well be the arrogance and the proud self-indulgence of the practitioners. In this respect, as a famous old American League baseball umpire used to put it, we have seen “the dawn of a new area!”

It is popular to write articles and books on alternatives to marriage. In these the New Adulterers proclaim their “freedom.” “Margaret Mead,” John White has written, “has for years suggested that we accept the alternative of ‘serial monogamy.’ And now, with equal seriousness, Alvin Toffler proposes in his best seller, Future Shock, that mobile executives in large corporations may in the future stop moving their families with them when promotion demands a cross-country switch. Family units and homes should remain as ‘plug in’ facilities for executives on the move. Instead of finding him a suitable house, the company should find him a suitably matched house-family-unit facility, with similar wife and children to the old unit he just unplugged from.”1

What is more detestable about the New Adulterers is their perverted use of the English language and their arrogant concept of “freedom.” While honesty ordinarily refers to refraining from lying, cheating, or stealing, or to being trustworthy and fair, with them the word has come to mean to strip away false fronts, to let people see us as we really are. That’s not too bad, but when this becomes a cover for selfishness, crudeness, and immorality, that is another matter. And that is what it has become. Proudly they say, “Yes, we are living together outside of wedlock. We believe we should be honest and forthright in these things.” It is usually claimed that this relationship is “healthy,” contributing to “personal growth,” “increased personhood,” or the like. I think I agree with the Canadian Christian psychiatrist who says, “Those who use such arguments remind me of Paul’s scathing words: ‘They glory in their shame’ (Phil. 3:19).”2

Our Lord’s words on marriage and divorce, and related questions, have, therefore, a special relevancy. The things that He says about the matter, if pondered and followed, would go a long way toward improving the quality of life in this confused society.

The occasion of His teaching on marriage and divorce in the Gospel of Matthew was the enmity of the Pharisees, who sought to cause Him to stumble as He engaged in His Perean Ministry. There was a continuing dispute among the Jews over what Moses had taught concerning the problem of divorce. The text at issue was Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and the point at issue was the meaning of the phrase, “some uncleanness in her” (v. 1). According to one well-known lexical authority, the expression means probably, “indecency, improper behaviour.”3 That does not help much, and it is not surprising that the School of Shammai took the reference to mean unchastity or adultery, while the School of Hillel, the broad brethren, took it to refer to insignificant wifely failures. According to Hillel and his followers, a bill of divorcement could be written for such flimsy reasons as serving her husband burnt food, or for talking so loud that the neighbors could hear her. From the tenth verse it might be argued that the disciples favored this broader interpretation. It is obvious that the question put to the Lord would, indeed, put Him on the horns of a dilemma, that is, if He were a politician seeking to please all His constituency. It is possible that the recent divorce of Antipas and his marriage to Philip’s wife complicated the matter, for his answer might have political repercussions, just as the Baptist had discovered.

The passage that we now study, then, is one with great ethical significance. In a simpler society no doubt most of the questions that developed found answers in our Lord’s and Paul’s words (cf. 1 Cor.7:10-16). In ours, due to the complicated tangles into which men get by the laxity of modern society, there are many situations concerning which Scripture does not seem to speak directly. That makes decisions difficult, but Scripture is sufficient for life, and we must, then, be willing to infer solutions from the principles unfolded in the word.

The Setting for the Teaching on Divorce

Having left Galilee the Lord Jesus journeys to the Judean district east of the Jordan. He continues His healing ministry, still affirming thereby the Messianic office that was His. In this part of the land the Pharisees come to Him with their question.

The Question of the Pharisees

The Pharisees had evil intent in posing the question, as the words “testing Him” indicate (cf. v. 3). Their question was designed to make Him declare Himself, and they thought that any answer would cause Him to lose part of His following.

Their question is, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” And the Lord’s answer is not immediately or directly answered. I think, however, that Tasker has hit upon the sense of the answer. He says, “The subsequent narrative implies that in effect the answer of Jesus is ‘If you mean for any cause, My answer is Yes; if you mean for every cause, my answer is No.’ First, He reminds them of the truth known to every reader of Scripture that the purpose of the creation of two sexes was that the solidarity, the continuance and the happiness of the human race might have as its foundation the physical union of man and woman. Such union is an essential part of the Creator’s plan, and attempts to thwart it, either by indulging in promiscuous sexual intercourse, or by asceticism and enforced celibacy, or by unnatural vice, or by attempts to break up marriages where the unity that God has in mind is being realized, are all contrary to the divine will (6).”4

Their question is based upon the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and essentially, then, they are asking what He thinks the words, “Some uncleanness in her” (v. 1), mean.

The Answer of The Lord

There are several things that we must notice in His answer. In the first place, it is clear that our Lord has complete confidence in the historicity and relevancy of the Genesis record. For Him that record is the infallible and inerrant Word of God. In fact, as many Bible students have noticed, the Lord’s use of Genesis 2:23-24 here indicates that for Him the whole of the written Old Testament is the Word of God. The citation of Genesis 2:24 in verse five is said to have been spoken by the One “who made them at the beginning,” that is, by God. Notice the wording of verses four and five carefully, “Have ye not read that HE WHO MADE THEM AT THE BEGINNING, made them male and female; AND SAID, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.” The One “who made them at the beginning” is He who “said” the following words. Now, when one turns to the Old Testament and reads Genesis 2:24, it becomes clear that the one who spoke the words was not God directly, but Moses! What, then, is our Lord’s reasoning? Anything that MOSES wrote GOD may be said to have written. In other words, for our Lord the words of the Old Testament are the words of God. It is no wonder that He accepted the Old Testament as the inerrant Word of God. Incidentally, this attitude toward the Old Testament finds many other examples in the New Testament use of the Old Testament (cf. Heb. 1:15 with Psa. 2:7; 2 Sam. 7:14; Heb. 1:6 with Deut. 32:43 [LXX]; Heb. 1:7 with Psa. 104:4; Heb. 1:8-9 with Psa. 45:6-7, etc.).

He would have agreed with Augustine’s words, which He put into the mouth of God, “Indeed, O man, what my Scripture says, I say.”5 And I think I can hear Him in praise and worship of the Father saying, “And now, O Lord God, Thou art God, and THY WORDS ARE TRUE” (cf. 2 Sam. 7:28).

Second, our Lord, then, confirmed the Genesis record, and in the following words of explanation He confirmed the teaching of that record on marriage and divorce. From Genesis He makes the point that marriage is RECEIVED by man from God. It is a divine institution. In fact, God officiated at the first wedding ceremony. The union between man and the woman is a purposeful one, having as its goals the abolishing of isolation (“it is not good for the man to be ALONE,” Gen. 2:18), as well as the propagation of the race. It is clear, too, that God intended the relation to be a monogamous one (cf. Gen. 2:24, “one flesh”). And finally, Genesis points to the permanence of the relationship, for the word “cleave” suggests, as someone has put it, the adhesiveness of intimacy. The Greek word means literally to glue or cement together. Erasmus rendered it by agglutin-abitur. Thus, the indissoluble character of marriage is the ideal set before the reader. And this is also seen in the use of the word “joined together” in verse six, for it means to yoke together. And it is “God” who has joined them together. In other words, marriages ARE MADE IN HEAVEN, and they are made for permanence. So then, our Lord’s words confirm and accent the Genesis account. Marriage is a permanent, divine institution.

The point of all this is that one should not be so concerned over the questions of divorce and forget the original intent of the Creator in creating the male and the female. Hendriksen puts it well, “Why all this talk about the possibility of divorce, as if to say, ‘If this marriage does not work out I can always divorce my wife’? Why not go back beyond Deut. 24 to God’s marriage ordinance recorded in such passages as Gen. 1:27 and 2:24?”6

The Pharasaic Objection

It is clear that the Pharisees understand that the Lord is making a case for an ideal, namely, that marriage is a permanent, monogamous, purposeful relationship. Thus, they ask a supplementary question, “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?” In other words, they infer that, if His analysis is correct, then Moses was guilty of an infringement of the original intention of God in permitting divorce. And, of course, since this could not be so, it is plain that this self-anointed Messiah is really arguing contrary to the Word of God. In plain words they say, “You’re contradicting Moses!”

The Pointed Correction of the Lord

The Mosaic permission (19:8). On the contrary, Jesus says, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, PERMITTED you to put away your wives, but FROM THE BEGINNING IT WAS NOT SO” (v. 8). The divine institution of marriage involved an indissoluble union, a union until death parts the two parties, according to the original purpose of God. Actually, Moses’ words are designed to uphold the divine intention. Many marriages at the time he wrote were not fulfilling the divine aim, and the Mosaic injunction was designed to bring the ideal nearer to practical realization. Polygamy had been common, and men had thought it a light matter to obtain a divorce. Any reason might do, it seemed. Thus was the natural outgrowth of the wickedness of man’s heart. Thus, the unions were not realized in the sense intended and, in fact, marriage had become too easy, since divorce was easy. Thus Moses’ words really strengthened the practice of marriage.

In fact, the Pharisees were far more interested in the concession of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 than in the divine institution of Genesis 1:27 and 2:24. So, the Lord points back to the original intention again.

We must note carefully the word, “permitted” (v. 8). That is, divorce was tolerated by the Mosaic Law. Now, it is plain that by the use of the word, “permitted,” that the thing tolerated was not intrinsically right. Divorce, even in the words of Moses that permitted it, is seen as intrinsically wrong. Moses does not abandon the sense of Genesis. If divorce was right, one would expect to see it commanded. It is not; it is permitted.

Moses permitted divorce “because (lit., with reference to) of the hardness of your heart.” Even the divine permission is not the ideal. It is a concession to the wickedness of the human heart, which often made and makes life intolerable to an offended marriage partner. In such cases relief is granted to the offended party. Cf. Gen. 3:1-24.

It should be noted, before we pass on, that Moses does not obligate the offended party to seek a divorce. It is not commanded. It is only permitted, or tolerated.

The Messianic precept (19:9). The Lord goes on to say, “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery; and whosoever marrieth her who is put away doth commit adultery.” It is plain from these words that the Lord puts Himself on the side of the stricter Shammai school. Divorce is permitted if there is fornication. And the converse is true, namely, that to divorce when there is not fornication is sin.

The famous exceptive clause, “except it be for fornication,” is surely genuine here (and in 5:32). That it is omitted in Mark and Luke is of no consequence so far as its genuineness here is concerned. All the truth on a subject is not necessarily found in every passage in which the subject is discussed. Marital unfaithfulness is an attack on the very nature of the marriage bond, and it is grounds for divorce, in fact, the only ground that our Lord ever mentioned (cf. 1 Cor. 7:10-16).

What is the meaning of “fornication?” The word is a very broad term, broader than adultery. The latter term has to do with illicit fornication involving married persons. The former term refers to the sexual act, and its significance is found in the context in which it is used. Here it clearly refers to the unfaithfulness of a wife, that is, to adultery.

It has sometimes been said that the word refers to unfaithfulness during the period of betrothal. If so, then the Lord would not be permitting any grounds for divorce. But the passage rests upon the Old Testament passage in Deuteronomy 24, and there the subject has to do with the marriage relationship clearly. The same fact militates against the view that the Lord is referring to the marriage of too near relatives (cf. Lev. 18:6-8), or marriage within the prohibited Levitical degrees. Why, then, would Moses warn that, if divorce took place, and the wife was subsequently remarried to another, the original husband could not take her again to be his wife? That would be totally superfluous, if marriage within the prohibited degrees was in mind.

The Pharisees are defeated, and by an appeal to the one they had sought to cite against Him, that is, Moses. They disappear from the scene, but questions still remain.

Modern Questions Concerning Divorce

What about incompatability? It is clear that incompatability, whatever that means, is not a Biblical ground for divorce.

What about remarriage? Does our Lord say anything about remarriage? No, He does not, but the implication of the text is that, if the divorce is a legitimate one (for fornication), then remarriage is permitted (cf. 19:9).

What about the influence of the regeneration of unbelievers and divorce? Little is said that would touch this. One must admit that we can only grope for a solution to this question. I am inclined to think that God forgives the guilt of an unbiblical divorce, but that does not necessarily wipe the past consequences clean. We often must suffer physically for sins of the body, although the guilt of the sin has been forgiven through the atonement of Christ.

The Paragraph on Celibacy

The strict words of our Lord had evidently come as a surprise to the disciples, and they say, “If such is the case of a man with respect to his wife, it is better not to marry” (v. 10). In other words, if we can divorce only on the grounds of adultery, it is not expedient to marry! Their reply is totally selfish.7

The Lord replies that the celibacy they suggest is something that is “given” by God. Other commentators suggest that the “given” refers to the divine institution of marriage, that is, a man cannot live up to that ideal without divine enablement. That is, of course, true but the statement of verse eleven probably refers to the immediately preceding words, rather than to the earlier part of the chapter.8

The section closes with three examples of abstinence from the married state. There are individuals whoare not to marry. That state is theirs by divine providence or by divine guidance. It is an admirable state. In fact, Paul appears to speak of it as “better,” although marriage is good and “honorable,” and, we might add, the normal state (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1-40). Rome’s error consists in erecting a rule for all upon the gift for some.


Our Lord’s words, then, are a compellingly impressive treatment of the inviolability of the divine institution of marriage, and they speak with great condemning force to the Age of Adultery.

And they also speak with compelling force and pleading urgency to believers and their spouses, to the end that they may remember the holiness of the relationship into which they have entered. May we give heed to them.

1 John White, Eros Defiled: The Christian and Sexual Sin (Downers Grove, 1977), pp. 76-77.

2 Ibid., p. 78.

3 Brown, Driver, and Briggs, p. 789.

4 Tasker, pp. 179-80.

5 Confessions, xiii. 29.

6 Hendriksen, p. 174.

7 Ibid., p. 717.

8 Tasker, however, may be right in referring the expression “this saying” to the Genesis passage cited in verse 5.