The Law and Divorce: The Gospel Accounts: A Chronological Harmony

The Law and Divorce

The Wrong Standard (Luke 16:14-15)

            After Jesus’ parables were told, the Pharisees found the point amusing. They were caught up in the world. The idea you could not pursue wealth and God at the same time sounded ridiculous to them. In their view wealth was a sign that God was blessing them. But Jesus points out that their justification of themselves was based on men’s view and not God’s. God knew what was in their hearts and, by implication, Jesus is stating that what was there would not justify them before God. God’s view and man’s view are not the same (Isaiah 55:8-9), but that is because man can only see the outward actions (I Corinthians 2:11).

The Change in the Law (Luke 16:16-17)

            The Law and the Prophets – that is, the Old Testament – was taught up until the time of John (Matthew 11:12-13). With the coming of John, a new Law, the Gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached (Mark 1:1; Matthew 4:17). While the Pharisees scoffed at the teachings, others have been eager to enter the kingdom. Jesus uses the imagery of a mob violently pushing its way through a door. People are pushing for the kingdom to be established, but they are wanting it to happen immediately. But it won’t come until everything the Law stated was fulfilled (Matthew 5:18). There would be changes, but they would not come by the will of man (Psalm 102:26-27).

Is it Lawful to Divorce? (Matthew 19:1-9; Mark 10:1-12; Luke 16:18)

            Some Pharisees and Scribes came to Jesus attempting to entrap him with a question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause at all?” There are only a few passages which mention divorce in the Old Testament. One, Deuteronomy 24:1-4, is a law forbidding a divorced wife from returning to first husband if she marries again. The cause of the original divorce is only vaguely stated as “for some uncleanness.” Historians tell us that during this time there was two popular views concerning the law. Followers of Hillel believed that anything which could be construed as “uncleanness” was sufficient to justify a divorce. Another Jewish rabbi, Shammai, taught that “uncleanness” had to have been a sexual uncleanness. It appears that the Pharisees were hoping to divide Jesus’ followers by having him declare a side. Notice that in Matthew 19:2 that this question was presented in front of a large multitude. It is likely that they were hoping to undermine his popularity.

            Jesus demonstrates once again that questions do not have to be answered in the way they are presented. He goes back to the very beginning. God created man and woman and established marriage as the union of a man and woman after they are old enough to leave home. Consequently, since God does the joining, men should not seek the undoing.

            The fact that Jesus stops here is significant. In the design of the world, before sin entered the world, the ideal is that a man and woman marry for life. Anything less is not as God wanted it. “‘Because the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one's garment with violence," says the LORD of hosts. ‘Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.’” (Malachi 2:14-16).

            The answer is not what the Pharisee’s expected. It is likely they thought they had caught Jesus in an error for they pointed out that Moses mentioned divorce in the Law. In fact, they stated it more forcefully by claiming that Moses commanded divorce. But Jesus pointed out it was a permission, not a command. In Mark’s account the Jews stated that they had permission to write a bill of divorcement and to send their wives away. Notice that they placed no restrictions on this action. Divorce was permitted under Moses’ Law because of the hardness of the people’s hearts. A hard heart refers to a person who refuses to sympathize with another (Deuteronomy 15:7). It can refer to a person who is stubborn and will not change his mind (Deuteronomy 2:30; II Chronicles 36:13). Thus Jesus is stating because they refused to be sympathetic toward their spouses and refused to change their ways, divorce was regulated, but it wasn’t what God wanted.

            What the Jews had done was broaden this sufferance on God’s part and treat it as if God commanded that it be done. Jesus puts it back into perspective and establishes the parameters with which God will tolerate divorce and remarriage. Though there have been many attempts at twisting the wording in Matthew 19:9, the Greek language is precise in its wording and not hard to understand.

            Both Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18 gives the generic command. In general, anyone divorcing his wife or her husband and marrying another commits adultery. The “and” in these statements tell us that it takes both actions – both divorce and remarriage – to cause adultery to happen. In addition the person marrying someone who had divorced his wife or her husband is also guilty of adultery. The person marrying a divorced person cannot claim innocence in this matter.

            Matthew 19:9 and an earlier statement in Matthew 5:32 both state there is one exception to this general rule. If the divorce occurred because of fornication (sexual immorality) on the part of a spouse, then by implication the spouse who was not guilty of fornication can marry another without it being called adultery. This does not free the guilty party, allowing them to remarry.

            God’s law has been made more complex by our government. Today a person can file for divorce without proof of cause. All they need to do is declare that they want out. Prior, the guilty party had no way of dissolving the marriage. As a result we are seeing people guilty of fornication divorcing their spouses so that they can legally marry another person. In some cases, the filling for divorce is the first clue that innocent party had that someone else was involved. Given this casual view of marriage by our government, it seems best to look at the result and not insist on who filed for divorce first when a marriage dissolved. Nor can it be insisted that sexual immorality be listed on the paperwork regarding the divorce since the government has dropped specific charges for a generic “marital incompatibility” in its records.

            There are more ways people have tried avoiding Jesus’ clear statement than I could possibly list. However, the no-fault divorce situation has brought up a common ploy where a divorce occurs and then when one partner remarries, the other partner claims they are now free to remarry. To gain this feat, the claim is that a civil divorce is not necessarily recognized by God. Thus the partner who waits claims the “real” divorce didn’t happen until after the remarriage. The problem is that this takes a recognizable point in time, which, though poorly done, is still regulated by courts, and replaces it with an unrecognizable time that is initiated by the whim of one of the marriage partners. The real truth is that people today are just like the Jews of old: they stubbornly refuse to attempt to resolve issues with their own spouse and refuse to bend to God’s laws. Men today are as hard-hearted as they ever have been.

Is the Command Too Hard? (Matthew 19:10-12)

            The reaction to Jesus’ teaching is telling. The disciples were so shocked by the strictness of what Jesus stated that they declared that it would be better not to get married. In other words, they didn’t think anyone would want to be tied down to just one spouse for life without some sort of escape from that marriage.

            Jesus pointed out what we all know: everyone would not accept this teaching. Only people motivated to be a disciple of Christ would accept it. He illustrates this by point by pointing to three classes of people who are not motivated to marry: those who are born physically unable to have sexual relations, those who have been damaged by men so as to be unable to have sexual relations, and those who are so busy in the Lord’s work that they forego sexual relations. By implication, everyone else must conform to this rule regarding marriage.

            I find the current controversy on marriage, divorce, and remarriage sounding much like what Paul warned against.


"As I urged you when I went into Macedonia -- remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith. Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm" (I Timothy 1:3-7).


"If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain. From such withdraw yourself" (I Timothy 6:3-5).


"Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words to no profit, to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (II Timothy 2:14-15).


"But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife" (II Timothy 2:23).

            The teachings in the Bible regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage are not that complex, but I find numerous brethren making them very complex. The reality is that marriage, divorce, and remarriage are three related but different topics. I know probably at least a half-dozen positions that people have taken on each of those three topics. I'm sure many more exist, but then someone will ask if I'm for or against MDR. Pardon me? How can you be for or against marriage? For or against divorce? Or for or against remarriage? Perhaps if we sat down and discussed what you currently believe, we might agree or disagree as to whether the Bible supports that position.

            Unfortunately, there are people who have made a hobby out of the issues of marriage, divorce, and remarriage. It is about the only thing they ever write about or discuss. In trying to distinguish themselves from others, they have sought to pull passages apart to the nth degree. Far too many have made the passages say far more than what is recorded. Others are going around saying if you aren't with them, then you must be one of "them" -- seeking to divide the brotherhood. The problem is that some of those I have talked to haven't a clue over what they are dividing. They are simply following certain people or not following certain people, as the case may be. Instead of striving to unite the brethren under the common teaching of the Bible, they are seeking reasons to divide. Few are aiming for better understanding; instead, they are drawing lines in the sand to determine to whom they are not going to talk.