One of the often overlooked issues in the Christian faith is the issue of divorce and remarriage.
The New Testament Exception Clause
In Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18, Jesus says that marrying a divorced person is considered adultery if his or her spouse is alive.
And He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12, NASB)
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18, NASB)
However, in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, we find an exception clause.
but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32, NASB)
And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:9, NASB)
Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 seem to allow divorce in the case of immorality. However, since Matthew is the only one to state the exception cause we have to be careful to understand who he was writing to. Matthew was primarily presenting the Gospel to the Jews, and in the Jewish culture there is the concept of bethroyal.
In Matthew 1:18-20, we find that Mary and Joseph were betrothed, and Joseph was considered to be her husband even though he had not fully taken her as his wife. From this it should be clear that bethroyal is roughly the equivalent of an engagement. Even though they were not necessarily married, verse 19 says that Joseph planned to send her away secretly. In the ESV, it says that he resolved to divorce her quietly.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18-20, NASB)
When Matthew presents the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, he is showing that betrothed couples are allowed to break their commitment if one of them is found to have committed immorality. The word used for immorality is porneia which is an umbrella term for all kinds of sexual immorality. Besides Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, the other instance where Matthew uses the word porneia is in Matthew 15:19, and there porneia is rendered as fornications and is treated seperately from the word moicheia which is adultery. Since adultery is marital unfaithfulness, it is reasonable to conclude that Matthew was using the word porneia to refer to pre-martial unfaithfulness. John Piper has written a great article on this topic.
“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. (Matthew 15:19, NASB)
While the exception clause covers pre-martial unfaithfulness, Christians can overlook a potential spouse’s past. Also, it is important to note that an engagement is not exactly the same as the concept of bethroyal so it is permissible but not ideal to break off an engagement for reasons other than pre-marital unfaithfulness.
The Old Testament Context
Going back, in Matthew 19:3-9 we see the full context of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees about divorce and remarriage.
The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which 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 twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. (Matthew 19:3-9, KJV)
Under the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, the primary passage on divorce and remarriage is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Basically, God permitted divorce and remarriage by mandating a certificate of divorce, but He prohibited the return of someone to a former spouse once remarried. However, divorce and remarriage was not an option afforded to all as we see in Deuteronomy 22:13-19 and 22:28-29.
“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 and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house, and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4, NASB)
One side note is that in verse 4 when it says defiled it does not mean a second marriage under the Mosaic Law was sinful, it means she was defiled in relation to her former husband. Various expository commentaries agree with this.
In Matthew 19:3-9, Jesus told the Pharisees that divorce and remarriage was only permitted under the Mosaic Law because of the hardness of their hearts. At that time, men would often marry women for pleasure without supporting them. The law on divorce protected women who would otherwise have been forced into prostitution to support themselves. Jesus went back to the Book of Genesis to bring out the importance of the one-flesh aspect of marriage, and stressed the importance of not breaking what God had brought together. Even in Malachi 2:16, God mentions that He hates divorce.
“For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” (Malachi 2:16, NASB)
The New Testament Context
In the New Testament, Christians are not to initiate divorce, however it is permissible for a Christian to separate from a spouse or accept divorce as we see in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16. If divorce is accepted, the person is expected to remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. However, going back to the principle set forth in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, it would be an abomination for someone to go back to a prior spouse once one of them have remarried if the remarriage would have been considered acceptable in the Old Testament or New Testament.
Some people like to quote 2 Corinthians 5:17, which says old things are passed away for those in Christ, and think that God overlooks a divorce and remarriage that was done prior to becoming a Christian. God certainly forgives divorce and remarriage, but like any other sin He requires us to repent or turn away from our former ways.
Some others believe they are free to remarry if they are deserted by their spouses for the sake of the Gospel. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, when Paul says that a brother or sister is not under bondage, he is practically affirming that Christians do not need to value an unequally-yoked marriage above their commitment to God. However, Paul is not saying that believers are then free to marry someone else.
But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:10-16, NASB)
As we see in 1 Corinthians 7:39, marriage was designed as life-long commitment between a man and a woman.
A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39, NASB)
What Jesus said on divorce and remarriage may be counter-cultural, but Christians should care about what God says. In Matthew 19:10-12, even the disciples went as far to say that it is better not to marry upon hearing Jesus talk about divorce and remarriage.
The disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry.” But He said to them, “Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it.” (Matthew 19:10-12, KJV)
Jesus said some are born eunuchs from their mother’s womb which speaks of those who have to renounce sexuality because of physical deformities.
Jesus said some are made eunuchs by men which speaks of those who have to renounce sexuality because they are in a situation where they cannot marry.
Jesus said some are made eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven which speaks of those who renounce sexuality because they have ministerial reasons for doing so.
Initial or Perpetual Adultery
Those who are divorced should understand that they are in a situation where they should not remarry until their former spouse dies. However, if they have remarried prior to their former spouse’s death, their sin can be forgiven and God can redeem that marriage.
I previously held the view that an additional marriage while one’s former spouse was alive should have been terminated due to it being perpetual adultery.
perpetual adultery IN romans 7?
That view was partly based on Romans 7:3 which I interpreted as perpetual adultery until her husband dies. However, the verse does not necessarily advocate perpetual adultery as much as it advocates the sinfulness of the initial act. It is therefore somewhat similar to the how the initial act of marrying a non-believer is sin although God can redeem that marriage.
So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man. (Romans 7:3, NASB)
Perpetual adultery IN eZRA 9 + 10?
That view was also partly based on another reason. In Deuteronomy 7:3-4, the Mosaic Law prohibited an Israelite from marrying someone who was of a nation that worshipped a false god. However, in Ezra 9:1-3 we find a time after the Babylonian captivity when the Israelites were found to have not followed this command. In Ezra 10:2-3 and 10:10-11, they then decide to put away their foreign wives.
I thought the story in Ezra applied to those who have remarried while their former spouse was alive. The line of reasoning was that since God considers those marriages to be adultery as we have seen in Luke 16:18, Christians in such a situation should put away a so-called wife, like the Israelites who disobeyed God’s commandment.
As a side note, the issue in the Book of Ezra is the marriage of a believer with an unbeliever, and not the prohibition of intercultural marriages. Christians should also not seek marriage with an unbeliever and should apply 2 Corinthians 6:14-15. That being said, in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 tells us that Christians who enter a marriage with an unbeliever are accepted by God and should not seek to leave the marriage.
Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you. (Deuteronomy 7:3-4, NASB)
Now when these things had been completed, the princes approached me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, according to their abominations, those of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has intermingled with the peoples of the lands; indeed, the hands of the princes and the rulers have been foremost in this unfaithfulness.” When I heard about this matter, I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled. (Ezra 9:1-3, NASB)
Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. So now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. (Ezra 10:2-3, NASB)
Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful and have married foreign wives adding to the guilt of Israel. Now therefore, make confession to the Lord God of your fathers and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” (Ezra 10:10-11, NASB)
INITIAL ACT ADULTERY AND JOHN 4
The case of the woman in John 4:17-18 who Jesus mentions as having five past husbands and one current boyfriend stuck me and caused me to reconsider whether only the initial act of remarriage whilst one’s former spouse was alive should be considered adultery. Jesus was affirming the legitimacy of the five previous marriages, especially since He does not affirm the man she is with now. Under the perpetual adultery view, I would have to believe that at least four of the five husbands had passed away. I am reluctant to hold to that view.
I must admit that under my earlier view, the woman could have legitimately been married to these five individuals in line with the Old Testament principle of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. But that assumes that Jesus was holding her to an Old Testament standard without establishing a New Testament standard, which does not make sense since Jesus often took an Old Testament standard and then established a equivalent or higher New Testament standard.
The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” (John 4:17-18, NASB)
INITIAL ACT ADULTERY AND JOSHUA 9
The case of Joshua’s wow to the Gibeonites in Joshua 9:18-19 is one of many examples which underscore the importance God places on vows made before Him. Joshua’s vow was unknowingly made in direct opposition to God’s commandment to wipe out these nations so it lines up with a vow made in a marriage than was in opposition to God’s commandment.
It is worth noting that I previously clung to the opposite notion, that obedience to God’s commandment is greater than a vow made before Him. However, that case may be an anomaly, and it is intriguing that even then the Israelites had to replace their marital vows with a higher vow to God.
Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.(Deuteronomy 20:16-18, NASB)
The sons of Israel did not strike them because the leaders of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord the God of Israel. And the whole congregation grumbled against the leaders. 19 But all the leaders said to the whole congregation, “We have sworn to them by the Lord, the God of Israel, and now we cannot touch them. (Joshua 9:18-19, NASB)
In Leviticus 21:7, we see that a priest could not marry a divorced person. But in Leviticus 21:13-14, we see that a high priest had to marry a virgin. This exemplifies the need for purity if we are to eternally live in the most holy place which the high priest symbolically accessed once a year.
The Three Marriages of God
Marriage is an important doctrine of Christianity because it reflects the relationship God has with His people.
In the Old Testament, God betrothed Israel when they left Egypt for the wilderness as we see in Jeremiah 2:2.
“Go and proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, “I remember concerning you the devotion of your youth, The love of your betrothals, Your following after Me in the wilderness, Through a land not sown. (Jeremiah 2:2, NASB)
The Mosaic Covenant at Mount Sinai was regarded by the prophets as a marriage covenant as we see in Jeremiah 31:31.
not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 31:31, NASB)
However, during the time of King Solomon, God divided the Kingdom of Israel into two parts known as the House of Israel and the House of Judah. In Ezekiel 23, the two houses are represented as two adulterous sisters married to God. As we see in Jeremiah 3:8, God ended up divorcing the House of Israel because of her adultery but He did not divorce the House of Judah even though she was also committing adultery.
“And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. (Jeremiah 3:8, NASB)
Jeremiah 3:1-5 is an interesting passage that often goes misinterpreted. Many people think that God was calling the House of Israel to turn back to Him despite His own principle set forth in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 that you cannot go back to a former spouse once remarried. Although the passage does not explicitly indicate the House of Israel remarried, it does say she continued her prostitution with false gods. For comparison, in Malachi 2:11 we see that the House of Judah was married to false gods. So as the NASB translation renders it, God was indignant about how the House of Israel thought she could return to Him. He wasn’t in these verses calling the House of Israel to return to Him.
God says, “If a husband divorces his wife
And she goes from him
And belongs to another man,
Will he still return to her?
Will not that land be completely polluted?
But you are a harlot with many lovers;
Yet you turn to Me,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 3:1, NASB)
“Have you not just now called to Me,
‘My Father, You are the friend of my youth?
‘Will He be angry forever?
Will He be indignant to the end?’
Behold, you have spoken
And have done evil things,
And you have had your way.” (Jeremiah 3:4-5, NASB)
Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord which He loves and has married the daughter of a foreign god. (Malachi 2:11, NASB)
In verse 12 of Jeremiah 3, however, God does call the House of Israel to return to Him. Verse 14 reiterates this call for God’s children to return to Him. We have to be careful with verse 14 though because some translations render it as God saying He was still married to the House of Israel who was His divorced wife. The NASB does a better job by saying God remained a master to both His children.
Go and proclaim these words toward the north and say,
‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord;
‘I will not look upon you in anger.
For I am gracious,’ declares the Lord;
‘I will not be angry forever. (Jeremiah 3:12, NASB)
‘Return, O faithless sons,’ declares the Lord;
‘For I am a master to you,
And I will take you one from a city and two from a family,
And I will bring you to Zion.’ (Jeremiah 3:14, NASB)
As Isaiah discovers in Isaiah 50:1, God had not divorced Himself from the House of Judah, so they should not have felt forsaken in Isaiah 49:14. While other translations translate the ending as if God divorced the House of Judah, the phrase ‘sent away’ seems to be indicative of a temporary period of separation. The bill of divorcement was so important to a divorced woman because it permitted her to remarry. No woman would want to lose such an important document. The rhetorical question at the beginning is God’s way of telling the House of Judah that He did not initiate a formal divorce with them.
Thus says the Lord,
“Where is the certificate of divorce
By which I have sent your mother away?
Or to whom of My creditors did I sell you?
Behold, you were sold for your iniquities,
And for your transgressions your mother was sent away. (Isaiah 50:1, NASB)
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
And the Lord has forgotten me.” (Isaiah 49:14, NASB)
God divorced the House of Israel as we see in Hosea 2:2. And as we see in Isaiah 54:1, God distinguished between the desolate one and the woman He was still married to.
“Contend with your mother, contend,
For she is not my wife, and I am not her husband;
And let her put away her harlotry from her face
And her adultery from between her breasts, (Hosea 2:2, NASB)
Shout for joy, O barren one, you who have borne no child;
Break forth into joyful shouting and cry aloud, you who have not travailed;
For the sons of the desolate one will be more numerous
Than the sons of the married woman,” says the Lord. (Isaiah 54:1, NASB)
But God had a plan to restore the House of Israel as we see in Hosea 2:7 and 2:19-20. Isaiah 62:5 also points to this.
“She will pursue her lovers, but she will not overtake them;
And she will seek them, but will not find them.
Then she will say, ‘I will go back to my first husband,
For it was better for me then than now!’ (Hosea 2:7, NASB)
“I will betroth you to Me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice,
In lovingkindness and in compassion,
And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.
Then you will know the Lord. (Hosea 2:19-20, NASB)
For as a young man marries a virgin,
So your sons will marry you;
And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
So your God will rejoice over you. (Isaiah 62:5, NASB)
In Matthew 15:24, we see that Jesus came for the lost sheep of the House of Israel.
But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24, NASB)
Jesus did not go against Deuteronomy 24:1-4 by going back to a former wife who may have been figuratively married to false gods. This is because the death of a spouse releases one from any marriage they are in and permits them to remarry. By His death on the Cross, He abolished His marriage to the House of Judah as well. Then through the new covenant, He has opened up the possibility for the House of Israel and the House of Judah to be united together with Him.
The Mosaic Covenant was a conditional covenant and Israel failed to meet the conditions. However, the New Testament covenant talked about in Hebrews 8:6-13 is not about our faithfulness but rather the faithfulness of God. The church or the Body of Christ is betrothed to Christ in the New Testament as we see in 2 Corinthians 11:2, and will be the Bride of Christ in eternity.
But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, by as much as He is also the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted on better promises.
For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. 8 For finding fault with them, He says,
“Behold, days are coming, says the Lord,
When I will effect a new covenant
With the house of Israel and with the house of Judah;
Not like the covenant which I made with their fathers
On the day when I took them by the hand
To lead them out of the land of Egypt;
For they did not continue in My covenant,
And I did not care for them, says the Lord.
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
After those days, says the Lord:
I will put My laws into their minds,
And I will write them on their hearts.
And I will be their God,
And they shall be My people.
“And they shall not teach everyone his fellow citizen,
And everyone his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
For all will know Me,
From the least to the greatest of them.
“For I will be merciful to their iniquities,
And I will remember their sins no more.”
When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear. (Hebrews 8:6-13, NASB)
For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin. (2 Corinthians 11:2, NASB)