Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, 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’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?” 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. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3-9)
Ask a legalistic question and you’ll hear a legalistic answer…regardless of the response.
To correctly understand this passage, we must understand the intent of the Pharisees’ question.
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”
This question was asked in reference to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where God made provision for divorce to be administered in a manner that is just, that leaves neither party under obligation to the other, and that leaves both parties free to marry another. The clear focus of this Deuteronomy passage is on how divorce is carried out. It is not intended to address when divorce may, or may not, be permissible.
However, a legal debate at the time involved reading, “When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce…” such that the phrase “some indecency in her” was misinterpreted to mean “any reason whatsoever” and used as an excuse to divorce for any frivolous reason at all. This was, then, being used as a legal loophole for men to divorce their wives for the specific purpose of marrying another woman, simply because they found the other woman to be more attractive.
It was a loophole typical of the Pharisaical approach to scripture, where everything was broken down into rigidly applied rules, with rules on top of rules, and various loopholes that only an expert in the law could navigate. Though they were experts in God’s law, they had no understanding of God’s heart.
So, they came to Jesus, asking this question based on misreading scripture, such that the question does not even fit the message of the passage. They were not seeking Christ’s wisdom on the topic, but rather were attempting to trap Him in a legal debate for which they had already prepared counter-arguments to either a positive or negative response.
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any frivolous reason whatsoever?” (my paraphrase)
Jesus responds to the question by upholding the sanctity of the marriage covenant with a quote from Genesis.
“Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE, 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’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
In other words, “How can you be so foolish as to even ask such a question? You know the marriage vows are sacred!”
The Pharisees respond by trotting out their well-polished rebuttal to a negative response.
“Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?”
Remember, they were not seeking wisdom from Jesus. Rather, they were trying to draw him into a no-win legal debate. They were trying to trap Jesus into either denouncing the sanctity of marriage or contradicting the Mosaic Law.
But Jesus didn’t fall for their trap.
“Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives.”
Rather than denouncing the law given to Moses, Jesus supported it, stating that it was necessary to make provision for divorce because of hardened hearts. When one partner’s heart becomes hardened against their spouse in intentionally violating covenant vows, divorce becomes a necessity.
Jesus artfully avoided the trap of legal debate by supporting both the sanctity of marriage and the necessity of provision for just divorce. Then He cut through all the legalism to expose and address the real heart issue.
“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
Simultaneously, Jesus again upheld the necessity of provision for just divorce in instances where covenant vows have been violated.
“…except for immorality…”
This passage is not intended to add yet another layer of legalistic rules and exceptions to either the Mosaic Law or the Pharisaical statutes. In fact, both here and throughout the gospels, Jesus denounced the legalism of the Pharisees, consistently demonstrating that sin is a matter of heart motive. Righteousness cannot be attained through strict adherence to external rules, nor can guilt be avoided through legal loopholes or exception clauses.
Neither is this passage intended to be a comprehensive list of circumstances under which divorce is, or is not permissible, nor when remarriage is, or is not permissible. Jesus was not forbidding remarriage after divorce (which would have contradicted the Mosaic Law). Rather he was portraying the adulterous nature of the heart motives of a man who divorces his wife for the specific purpose of marrying another woman.
If we approach this passage asking, “When is divorce permissible?” or “When is remarriage after divorce permissible?” we are in danger of falling into the trap of the Pharisees. Jesus was not addressing those questions in this passage, and if we attempt to find those answers here we will draw ourselves into a no-win legal debate while totally missing the heart of God.
However, if we come to this passage asking, “What is a godly attitude toward honoring my marriage vows?” we will find godly principles regarding the sanctity of the marriage covenant.
Or if we come to this passage asking “Is divorce a godly course of action in my circumstances?” we will find godly principles regarding the necessity of provision for just divorce when the covenant vows have been hard-heartedly violated.
In order to find correct answers, we must approach the passage with the right questions…not of legalistic rules, but of a heart pursuing godliness in all circumstances.
What are some other areas we tend to ask the wrong questions?