What is the Central Gospel Passage on Divorce?

Matthew 19:3-12:

3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

The motive behind the Pharisees’ question to Jesus about divorce and remarriage was to “test” him (Gk. peirazō, the same word used for Jesus’ temptation by the devil in John 4:1). This alone should serve to warn Matthew’s readers that a comprehensive treatment of marriage and divorce is not forthcoming. Perhaps the Pharisees had in mind John the Baptist’s reaction to Herod’s divorce and remarriage, a reply that eventually led to the prophet’s execution (Matt. 14:1-12). Perhaps they thought the same fate awaited Jesus if he misspoke. Regardless, Jesus’ intent seems to have been to address enough of the issue to avoid their trap.

In v. 3, the phrase “for any cause” (absent from the lengthy Markan account) warns the reader that the notorious debate between the great first-century rabbis Hillel and Shammai was on the table, a dispute that centered on the meaning of “some indecency” in Deuteronomy 24:1. The followers of Shammai allowed divorce only for overt “indecency”, while Hillel’s disciples allowed it “for any cause” the husband might deem legitimate, indicating that the questioners in v. 3 were probing Jesus regarding his reaction to Hillel’s perspective.

Jesus answers their question with a question in order to reframe the debate. The Pharisees’ emphasis, as reflected in the rabbinic debate, is on grounds for divorce, when God’s intent is permanence in marriage. Jesus rejected the categories of their questions, and did not allow them to use the OT law as an easy escape from God’s purpose for marriage. In so doing, Jesus goes back to Genesis 2 and the creation ordinance of marriage to remind them of God’s original plan. Jesus affirms in v. 5 that marriage is defined by serious commitment (“leave” and “hold fast”) and sexual consummation (“one flesh”). Contrary to the view claiming that infidelity automatically ends the marriage bond, sexual infidelity breaks the union only if it is accompanied by a formal decision to end the divorce.

Even though “separate” (Gk. chorizō) in v. 6 is a different word than “divorce” (Gk. apoluō) in v. 3, it must still refer to divorce because that is the question at hand. Further, Jesus will reuse apoluō later in vv. 8 and 9. Some use v. 6 to argue that marriage is unbreakable, but to say marriage is indissoluble is to interpret Jesus as saying: “Do not divorce (even though in reality this is not even possible).” Rather, Jesus teaches that divorce is undesirable, not that marriage is unbreakable.

Prior to v. 7, Jesus has only affirmed that marriage should be permanent. Now the Pharisees responded again, asking why Moses commanded a bill of divorcement (v. 7) if there can be no divorce. Though Jesus grants that divorce was allowed due to Israel’s stubborn unwillingness to be faithful to the marriage covenant, it is simply not true that Moses “commanded” divorce. Rather, Moses (Gen. 2:24) and Jesus (Matt. 19:5-6) commanded permanence in marriage.

Verse 9 is crucial as it is the only single verse in the NT referencing grounds for divorce and remarriage. We will discuss this exception clause below as we deal with the synoptic parallels to this passage in Mark and Luke.

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