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What Does the Bible Teach about Divorce?

August 9, 2020

Teacher: Daniel Baker
Scripture: Matthew 19:3-9

What Does the Bible Teach about Divorce?

Matthew 19:3–9  — God: The Center of it All — August 9, 2020


Every year in America there is somewhere in the ballpark of 2 million marriages. There is about a third that many divorces—over 700k. Not quite 50% of marriages will end in divorce. The divorce rate seems to be dropping, but some of that is because people are waiting longer to get married and living with people they’re not married to.

Getting a good handle on the church isn’t easy. If you base the number on who says they’re a Christian, the divorce rates are the same as those who don’t say they’re a Christian. But if you get more precise it’s more encouraging. If you look for people active in a church, reading their Bibles, and who say they believe specific Christian truths, the divorce rate is actually pretty low.

But still, divorce is a real part of our world. Many of us have either been divorced or grew up in a home with divorced parents. And many marriages hit seasons where it seems like divorce is a real possibility.

Divorce is emotional and difficult for everyone connected to it. It’s like a meteor falling out of the sky into a lake. The ripple effects touch everything. There’s no space of water that doesn’t feel the impact. Nothing remains calm. All things are agitated for some period of time, sometimes years.

Schedules, relationships, finances, living arrangements, parenting, everything gets turned upside-down. Friendships have to be figured out all over again. All the social circles of a person’s life have to be rebuilt or redefined.

And if church has been central to your life, that can create unique challenges. You can feel judged or ostracized or left out—even when you’re not. Being a lone adult when everyone around you seems to be paired up can feel awkward and uncomfortable. Some people end up drifting to another church where they aren’t constantly reminded of what they used to have.

This morning we want to think about this topic of divorce. We won’t hit all the statistics or studies on the impact it can have on children and adults. Instead we want to think about what the Bible has to say about it. We won’t at all be able to hit everything that is said. But we’ll try and hit some of the key things the Bible speaks.

With marriage and divorce there is a narrow ledge we’re asked to walk, the church is asked to walk. On one side, we need to have the most exalted and elevated view of marriage possible. We must devote its energy to seeing it defined, defended, protected, encouraged.

But on the other side we cannot define the commitment of marriage in such a way that it becomes a prison and something that can ruin a person or family. There are times when divorce is a God-given remedy for getting out of a terrible marriage.

Our sermon series is God: The Center of It All. If God is to be at the Center of our lives he must be at the center of one of the most important human relationships we can have, the relationship between a husband and a wife. And that means we need to let him define our thinking about divorce.

Our text this morning will be Matthew 19:3–9, one we looked at last time as well. It connects to our Deuteronomy series because it is a Deuteronomy passage that sets the stage for the conversation Jesus has with these Pharisees.

Read Matt 19:3–9 and Prayer.

I. What Moses Wrote in Deuteronomy 24:1–4

To understand this passage it’s helpful to look first at what Moses wrote. The Pharisees are asking Jesus a question about a particular passage in the Law of Moses. Let’s read the passage first.

Deuteronomy 24:1–4:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then 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 of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates 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 man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance. (Deut 24:1–4)

This whole passage is basically one sentence describing a single situation.

A man and woman get married. The man finds “some indecency” in her and divorces her. This isn’t adultery. That would require the strongest punishment, capital punishment. This is an “indecency” of some other kind.

So he divorces her. She marries another and her 2nd husband either dies or divorces her. The Law says at that point she can’t go back to her 1st husband. To do that is to do something defiling. “She has been defiled” (v. 4).

It doesn’t mean the woman is defiled. It simply means the first man and first woman here can’t be remarried. She’s been involved with someone else and it wouldn’t be right for her to return to her first husband.

In other words, this is a very specific situation. But it does open up divorce when there is “some indecency”—or “a matter of indecency” as it’s sometimes translated.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day generally had two ways of interpreting this passage. The School of Hillel said it really means you can divorce for any “matter” you find “indecent” in a woman. Cooking is one of the “matters” of a marriage. Is her cooking “indecent”? That can be grounds.

The School of Shammai said no, that’s not what Moses meant. He meant it had to be “an indecent matter,” something that was shameful, corrupting. Not adultery, but something serious and rare.

The question the Pharisees have for Jesus is which side of this debate is he on? Does he believe in divorce “for any cause” (ESV)? Or does he hold to a stricter view of divorce.

So, with that understanding of the background, let’s look at Jesus’ response.

II. What Jesus Says About What Moses Wrote

Jesus sees the trap being set for him. And like the Road Runner going up against Wiley Coyote in the cartoon shorts, Jesus always comes out on top. Look it up on YouTube. Not now!

His answer has a few parts to it. Last week we looked at verses 4–6 and the vision of marriage we’re given there.

They ask about a law in Deuteronomy 24, and now Jesus will respond to what Moses wrote.

The first thing he does is what we must always do, read a text of Scripture in light of the bigger context. To understand Deuteronomy 24 on divorce, you have to go back to “the beginning,” Genesis 1–2 on marriage. That’s what Jesus is telling us.

That’s where you see God’s plan for marriage.

Marriage is between a man and a woman created in God’s image.

A man and a woman who look to God himself to understand who they are, why they’re here, and how to treat one another as husband and wife.

And then Jesus cites Gen 2:24 as a one-verse overview of marriage:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:24)

Jesus talks about this “one flesh” and then adds something read in so many marriage ceremonies throughout history: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6).

This is the elevated view of marriage the church is to hold and protect and teach. It is a union meant to be “till death do us part.”

Maybe the Pharisees sense an opening here. Jesus makes it sound like God in the beginning spoke something contradictory to Moses in Deuteronomy 24. In verse 7 they press the point.

If marriage was to be a union that “man” must “not separate,” then what about Moses in Deuteronomy 24?

In verse 8 Jesus clarifies a couple things.

First, he corrects their language. Moses did not “COMMAND” divorce as the Pharisees said (v. 7). Moses “ALLOWED” or “PERMITTED” it (v. 8).

He also tells them that the reason he “ALLOWED” divorce was their “hardness of heart.”

The vision of marriage we see in the Garden of Eden didn’t last because sin came into the world through the Fall. Once sin came into the world things started to happen that weren’t there in “THE BEGINNING.” Divorce is one of these.

John Murray:

Divorce is contrary to the divine institution, contrary to the nature of marriage, and contrary to the divine action by which the union is effected….Divorce is the breaking of a seal which has been engraven by the hand of God.
John Murray, Divorce[1]

In some ways Moses wasn’t even “ALLOWING” it as much as regulating it. Like he was saying, “This isn’t God’s plan, but it’s going to happen. When it does, this is how to do it.”

This is important. The Bible never commands someone to divorce, it simply regulates it. It allows it in certain places.

And the only reason there’s any divorce is because of the “hardness of heart” in us from the presence and power of sin.

This isn’t to say both spouses are equally guilty in a divorce. Not at all. It’s only to say divorce is a reminder that we’re in a fallen world now.

This isn’t the Garden of Eden, and this isn’t the new heavens and new earth. In this realm, God’s original plan for things isn’t fulfilled. We get glimpses of it—tastes of it. But we don’t live up to the full reality of it.

III. What Jesus Himself Teaches

But then in verse 9 Jesus takes things in an unexpected direction. Now he’s not simply correcting their view of Moses. He’s teaching something brand new. This is Jesus the New Moses speaking.

Remember, the question on the table is, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” Now he answers that question directly.

Here we need to hear the whole verse. The situation he describes is a man divorcing his wife and then getting remarried. It’s two parts, a divorce and then a second part, a remarriage.

When you have a divorce and then a second marriage, the second marriage can be either lawful or unlawful. That second marriage itself can be an act of adultery or sexual immorality if the first marriage did not end in a legitimate or lawful manner.

In a similar teaching in Mark 10, Jesus emphasizes the 2nd marriage even more. And adds the wife’s role. But he doesn’t include “the exception clause,” “except for sexual immorality”:

And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11–12)

You see that the issue is the remarriage. That second marriage can be adulterous if the first one did not end because of adultery.

This fits with what we know of divorce in the 1st century, whether Jews or Greeks, the people of God or those in the culture. A certificate at that time would sometimes be longer and sometimes shorter, but the key sentence it would always include is this: “You are free to marry another.” In the case of Jews, sometimes it would be more explicit: “You are free on your part to go and become the wife of any Jewish man that you wish.”[2]

Let’s think about the 2nd marriage in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:9. Jesus said a 2nd marriage is adultery unless the 1st ended on the ground of “sexual immorality.” This is called “the exception clause” since it carves out an exception to a basic rule.

The basic rule is that if you divorce and remarry, that’s an act of adultery against your first spouse.

But there’s an exception to this when the first marriage ends because of adultery. In the ESV it says “except for sexual immorality,” which is the Greek porneia. But the intent here is actual adultery, getting physically involved with someone outside of your marriage.

The reason is the sexual sin that has broken the “one flesh” aspect of marriage. It’s more than lust of the eyes or lust of the heart. These are sinful. Jesus is talking about something deeper, something that ruins the marriage at a deep level.

We have to be careful here and not over-interpret Jesus’ words. There’s no passage where Jesus gives an exhaustive teaching on divorce and remarriage, where he names all the legitimate reasons for a divorce and remarriage. The Bible isn’t written that way. You have to take all that it says on a topic to make good sense of it.

In Matthew 19 Jesus gives one clear reason why a marriage might rightfully end, adultery. It’s not the only one but it’s an important one.

But in doing this, Jesus is saying something radical. He’s reinterpreting the Law of Moses in a radical way.

  • First he’s saying that Moses’ reason for divorce is no longer legitimate. Moses said “some indecency” is grounds for divorce. Jesus is saying, that’s no longer true. Adultery is grounds, which is far more than “some indecency.”
  • But since he doesn’t mention capital punishment at all, he’s also hinting at the fact that capital punishment should no longer be the punishment for adultery. This is radical, too, since adultery in the OT was punishable by death.
  • The Pharisees wanted to know if he was part of Hillel or Shammai. He says, neither. I’m God and I can adapt Moses as I see fit.

IV. What Paul Adds in 1 Corinthians 7:10–15

Like I said, Jesus did not give an exhaustive list of reasons why a couple might legitimately be divorced. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 adds some really important principles to Jesus’ teaching.

Paul writes this early in the church’s history. If we had any illusions that there was some sweet season where things were simple and marriages were always happy, 1 Corinthians corrects that view instantly. We’ll look at a few verses.

1 Corinthians 7:10–11:

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Cor 7:10-11)

As you read this you need to remember Matthew 19, which allowed for divorce when there was adultery. Paul isn’t contradicting that. He’s adding something different.

His point here is that when you have two Christians who divorce, they should “remain unmarried or else be reconciled.”

He uses the word “separate” but this is a 1st century separation, not a modern one. Today separation and divorce are very different. In the 1st century, one of the ways you divorced someone was by separation. You simply left the household.

You’d sometimes write a “certificate of divorce” because of finances or property, but it wasn’t necessary. You divorced by simply walking out the door, not intending to return.

Notice Paul’s language. He commands something, “I give this charge.” But then he follows it up with an acknowledgement that it’s going to happen. “If she does.” He’s not commanding someone to divorce. He doesn’t really even allow for it. He’s acknowledging that it’s going to happen. And when it does, the couple should “remain unmarried or else be reconciled.”

The couple is not free to remarry someone else. They can remarry each other but not anyone else.

They aren’t married to one another, but they still have obligations to one another. They can only remarry each other. When they don’t have legitimate grounds for the divorce, those are their options.

1 Corinthians 7:12–14:

12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1 Cor 7:12–14)

Now we enter the realm of the mixed marriage–one spouse a Christian and the other isn’t. Paul says not to divorce someone just because you got saved. If your spouse will live with you, you should live with them.

In fact, you being in the home will bring grace and blessings to your spouse and children. The Spirit in you is that powerful. They aren’t saved because of you, but there will be a spiritual blessing in their lives because of you.

If you’re in a mixed marriage, you can take comfort that God can use you to bless them!

1 Corinthians 7:15:

But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. (1 Cor 7:15)

But not every unbelieving spouse will stay. Some will leave the marriage. When that happens, you are “not enslaved.” You are free to remarry.

There can be no marriage if one spouse leaves the household. Desertion ends the marriage because it ends all the things that a marriage covenant includes—the shared life, shared finances, shared meals, shared home, companionship.

Notice the difference here. In verses 10–11 above the Christians were to “remain unmarried or else be reconciled.” In verse 15 the Christian “is not enslaved” and is free to remarry.

That gives two clear grounds for divorce giving someone the right to remarry—adultery and desertion. Jesus made it clear adultery gives someone the right to remarry. Paul made it clear desertion gives someone that right.

Adultery and desertion break the one flesh marriage covenant as God intended it, so that’s why they are grounds for divorce.

Since the Reformation adultery and desertion have consistently seen by Protestants as legitimate grounds for divorce.

But pastors and theologians since then have also recognized that sometimes a spouse can so mistreat the other spouse that what they’ve done is to break the marriage covenant in a way equivalent to adultery and desertion.

Even in the 16th century physical and verbal abuse and not providing food and shelter. These were seen as creating such “intolerable conditions” for a spouse that divorce can sometimes be legitimate and give someone the right to remarry.

“Intolerable conditions” never meant a marriage conflict or even a marriage filled with conflict. Not every marriage is a happy or easy one.

This meant a situation where the mistreatment was prolonged, malicious, and combined with an absence of all the things meant to be shared in a marriage.

These are no cut-and-dry situations. Elders and churches must be involved.

This will often involve church discipline, because the kinds of things that create “intolerable conditions” in a marriage are also the types of things that can get you excommunicated from the church.

Earlier in Corinthians, Paul gives a short list of things that lead to excommunication:

1 Corinthians 5:9–11:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor 5:9–11)

“Reviling” means “verbal abuse.” This list isn’t exhaustive but it’s helpful.

When someone sins in these ways and isn’t repentant, the church responds by saying the person is no longer recognized as a believer.

In that way it’s like they become the unbeliever deserting the marriage from 1 Cor 7:15.

But “in such cases” to use Paul’s phrase from 7:15. “In such cases,” the process will be long, patient, and careful. It will involve the elders and the church.

When the elders talked about this sermon on Friday we weren’t all in the exact same place on what could constitute legitimate grounds for divorce.

But we were all united in our sense that marriage conflicts are some of the most challenging of all problems that we face. And therefore any process that might end in a divorce, especially a divorce with the right to remarry, would have to be long, must be patient, and it must be careful.


The reason for such care is what I said earlier, the church has a holy obligation, a sacred trust from the Lord to maintain these two things:

(1) A high view of marriage as an enduring covenant between one man and one woman and that (2) a marriage is not a life-sentence in a prison with absolutely no way out when one spouse has wrecked the marriage covenant in every important way.

We want to hold both of these as a church, as individuals with one another in the church, even with those outside the church.

And also to point to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Son of God who came and lived among us. And took our place on the cross. Bearing the wrath of God we deserved. Facing the judgment we deserved. So all who believe in him can be saved—forgiven and empowered to live a new life.

In Christ there is:

  • Grace for the hardest of marriages.
  • Forgiveness if we really blew it in an earlier marriage.
  • In certain situations, when a spouse has crossed the line, we want to remind people there is a way out of the marriage.

Book by Ray Ortlund, Marriage and the Mystery of the Gospel.

Prayer and Song


[1] Murray, Divorce (P&R), 33.

[2] Instone-Brewer, “Jewish Greek and Aramaic Marriage,” 237. 

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