It is well past time to acknowledge the measure the harm that has been done as a result of the consistent failure of those in authority to recognize God’s intent as it relates to the application of biblical doctrine on the subject of divorce. In Part I, we examined the well-used “God hates divorce,” decree, a formidable trump card often thrown down by the legalists. Exercising a minimal degree of common sense, it is obvious that the warning Malachi penned at God’s direction was a direct response to the selfish acts of disobedient men and had nothing to do with biblical divorce.
But what about Jesus’ teachings on the subject? On most accounts, what we have been taught is that God commands that no one tear apart the one-flesh union created by marriage, and that those who are compelled to divorce surely suffer from a hardened heart. I accepted those teachings at face value for many, many years. Dear reader, if you are struggling with these same issues, I believe you will find the truth and freedom you seek when you understand the story behind the story and grasp our Lord’s pronouncements in their fullness.
We will look at Matthew 19 beginning with verse 3 and ending with verse 8.
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.”
Before we look at what was said, we need to set the stage.
Verse 3 says: Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?”
Here we find our first clue about what is really going on. Who came? The Pharisees. Why did they come? To test Jesus. The legalist religious leaders were hoping to trip Jesus up, corner Him, turn others against Him. These men were not supporters or friends. There was no sincere intent to learn or understand. So before we consider what was said, we need to understand the agenda behind the words, for it contributes significantly to the dynamic of the encounter. Consistent with other interactions between the Pharisees and our Lord, the Pharisees once again fail to take into account Whom it is they are attempting to manipulate.
So, it is against this backdrop that the Pharisees ask Jesus whether it is acceptable for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all.
At this point a brief lesson in a controversy of the time is helpful. For the Mosaic law provided for the granting of a writ of divorce for legitimate “cause,” although there is no reckoning of specific offenses that would provide grounds. This was, I believe, intended by God, so as to urge discretion and conviction rather than a simplistic rationale for releasing a marriage partner. Over time, however, “cause” had been interpreted to accommodate the release of a wife for “any cause at all,” a loophole the legalists very much appreciated, for it facilitated their selfish ways.
Further, the term translated “divorce” here is actually the term for “putting away,” where men would send away their wives without a writ of divorce with the general intent of taking other wives.
So their question to Jesus was centered on whether He approved of their habits of “putting away” their wives for “any cause at all.” They wanted to see if Jesus would condone their actions which, although morally objectionable, had long been accepted in their culture and which they thought they could defend from a Mosaic perspective. The question itself points directly back to the condition of these men’s hearts.
Jesus chose not to answer their question at all, but went to the crux of the issue: their motives.
Verses 4-6: 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.”
We can see that our Lord’s intent is to compel the Pharisees to revisit God’s original, pure and wondrous intent for marriage: male and female, joined in the sight of God, becoming one under His headship, the image of unity and intimacy. This is truly God’s design. The Pharisees know this, yet they are attempting to defend a marital counterfeit. Jesus is reminding them of their solemn responsibility – to honor God’s intent for marriage and their wives. Then Jesus adds, “What God has joined, let no man separate.”
The term here for “separate” is often translated, “put asunder,” which literally means “tear apart.” The gravity and pain of the term is profound. But what needs to be understood is that Jesus never mentions the concept of putting away a wife or biblical divorce in this encounter – either one. “Let no man put asunder,” warns that no one should willingly play a role in the destruction of a divine union.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
To clarify, the destruction – the tearing apart of the relationship is not a result of divorce. It is just the opposite: biblical divorce is the result of the relationship having been torn apart before a writ is ever issued. Jesus is saying, essentially; woe to the one who – whether from within or without – intentionally or irresponsibly allows harm to enter in and destroy the precious marital bond.
I hope you can begin to feel the tension between our Lord and the Pharisees in this exchange. Nevertheless, the Pharisees press on. They decide to bring in their big gun: Moses.
Verses 7 and 8: 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.
It is intriguing that the Pharisees try to change the subject, to come at Jesus from another angle. But Moses said that we can give our wives a writ of divorce and send them away. What do You have to say about that? Here they quote from the Law, which allowed a wife to be sent away, once given a lawful writ of divorce as provided in Deuteronomy 24. Perhaps they thought they might convince the One who knows all that they had released their wives under the auspices of the Mosaic law, so everything was good.
But Jesus tells them that everything was not good. Their hearts and motives were still wrong. The Pharisees wanted to be able to justify the selfish acts they had committed against their wives, presumably so that they were free to take other wives – without cause. Moses gave us permission. What they failed to comprehend is that divorce was not provided for the sake of the selfish; it was granted for the sake of the victims of the selfish.
Jesus poignantly responds: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce [give your wives a writ of divorce and release them]; but from the beginning it has not been this way.”
Jesus is laying a scathing indictment at His adversaries’ feet, essentially saying, “This is not a game, and your actions are inexcusable. Divorce was provided in the law to allow women the freedom to re-marry in cases where they are unwanted or have been abandoned or mistreated by hard-hearted men – like you. If you were the men God called you to be, you would honor your commitment to your wives and take care of them rather than looking for reasons to dispose of them, so you can take other wives for yourselves.”
Jesus did not say that anyone who gets a divorce is hard-hearted. Nor did He ever call divorce a sin. He was angry at those who failed to honor God’s intent for marriage, the cruel act of putting away, and the immoral acceptance of treachery in marriage. Jesus’ defense of marriage – and of women in particular – is entirely consistent with the revelation of God’s heart as seen in Malachi 2.
This exchange finds our Lord condemning the hard-hearted and those who deliberately make a mockery of the marriage bond. And divorce was provided in the law – as a means of recourse and protection for those who shouldn’t need either.
You, O Lord, will not withhold Your compassion from me; Your lovingkindness and Your truth will continually preserve me. Psalm 40:11
Next: adultery and remarriage.
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