We have looked at two of the three areas where the Scriptures are often misinterpreted and subsequently misused to the detriment of those who suffer in abusive, neglectful and destructive marriages. The case has been made that God does not hate divorce or those who are compelled to divorce with cause, nor was it Jesus’ intent to convey that those who legitimately divorce are categorically hard-hearted.
The third most commonly misappropriated Scripture seemingly finds our Lord identifying adultery as the only biblical cause for divorce. This is perhaps the most common assertion in Christian circles.
Jesus’ comment, from which this doctrine is taken, is found in three separate places in the gospels. The statement is found in Matthew Chapters 5 and 19 and Luke Chapter 16. Matthew’s account will serve as our reference, and it reads as follows:
It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce’; 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 5:31-32 (NASB)
In this account, our Lord’s statement referencing “divorce” and adultery follows comments He made that touch on what seem to be a loosely connected selection of subjects. But the subjects are, in fact, connected by an important, common thread. Jesus is contrasting common assumptions associated with law-keeping against a deeper spiritual reality – the condition of the heart.
His comments to the people began with what we have come to know as the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle…blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who have been persecuted…
Jesus’ message to a hurting people is, essentially, “You may think God doesn’t see your troubles, your struggles; that He is unaware. But, He sees your faithfulness. He sees it all. Don’t doubt; you will be rewarded. Jesus’ emphasis: God knows your heart.
He then clarifies that standing on the law alone does not equate to righteousness.
You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Matthew 5:21-22
Here it is stressed that while murder is a sin in the eyes of the law, hatred is a sin of the heart, even if the law is technically kept. Jesus’ emphasis: God knows your heart.
This theme is driven home with a powerful declaration:
For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:27
Jesus contrasts sincere faith with the religious arrogance of the Pharisees, who represented themselves as morally superior keepers of the law. Though perhaps keeping the law in a technical sense – ticking off all the boxes of religiosity required under the law – Jesus knew the perversions that reigned in their hearts. They were all fluff and no stuff, and Jesus consistently assailed them for their hypocrisy.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. Matthew 23:27-28
Jesus was – and is – unimpressed with superficial manifestations of faith. It is in the heart that our true nature and character are revealed. So, with this understanding in mind, we return to Matthew 5.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5: 21-30
Jesus is not saying that we should literally pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands when they partner with us in sin. No, He is saying that we may keep the letter of the law while defiling it in our hearts – where it matters most, and the priority is to address the root of the problem: that which is unseen – our motives. Putting on a good show while sinning in secret is pure self-deception and a lifeless lie. Jesus is exhorting us to check our hearts and our motives with the full knowledge that nothing escapes God’s notice.
Of course, if we stand with the legalists on this subject, we could say that since we are all guilty of adultery with a single lustful thought, then technically each of us could divorce our partner and be lawfully justified! You’ll never hear that angle preached from any pulpit – nor would I claim that is what Jesus is teaching here. Once again, the point of Jesus’ dispensation was that what God sees is not what the world sees, for He is the judge, not only of our conduct, but of every thought and motive.
Then He says:
It was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce; 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.
As can be seen from previous analyses, there is a profound distinction between the provision of a biblical writ of divorce for cause and the act of “putting away” a spouse, which is often poorly translated “divorce.” Young’s Literal Translation reads more accurately:
And it was said, that whoever may put away his wife, let him give to her a writing of divorce; but I – I say to you, that whoever may put away his wife, save for the matter of whoredom, doth make her to commit adultery; and whoever may marry her who hath been put away doth commit adultery. (emphasis added)
Under the Mosaic law, a lawful divorce required a man to give a wife who had found no favor in his eyes a writ of divorcement, a document which released both of them to marry. Divorce was never to be an issue taken lightly, nor exercised for selfish reasons, but was recognized as recourse when there was legitimate cause.
The Mosaic law therefore permitted divorcing a wife for “cause;” however, over time this had been interpreted to permit release for “any cause at all,” a heartless violation of the intent of the Mosaic law. Not only that, but men had become accustomed to releasing their wives without granting them a writ of divorce, presumably so that they could take other wives. Lacking a writ, “put away” wives could not legally remarry. The Pharisees (who were testing Jesus) wanted to see if Jesus would approve of their “any cause” logic. He didn’t.
Throughout His message Jesus says, “It has been said…but I say…” He is not clarifying the law with another law, He is going beyond it, emphasizing this ultimate truth: Just because something may be rationalized as lawful does not make it right if your heart is wrong. Jesus’ emphasis once again: God knows your heart.
He then clarifies that the only appropriate cause for sending a wife away without a writ was the offense of unchastity. The word here is not “adultery,” but fornication or promiscuity. It is a reference to premarital sexual activity, in which case the wife could be released without a writ. (Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, sought to put Mary away [send her away secretly] rather than have her stoned as would be required under the law had he accused her.) There was no other justification for putting away a wife without the provision of a writ.
Without a writ, the “put away” wife faced several unappealing options: prostitution, begging, or living with a man in adultery. In fact, under the ketubah, the marriage contract, sending a wife away with a writ also required the return of her dowry and a measure of financial support for a specific period of time. The heartless practice of putting away a wife, presumably to take another wife, was the matter to which our Lord strongly objects. Without the legal bond being severed, the husband is technically committing polygamy, and the chained woman (“agunah”) may be compelled to resort to prostitution or adultery to survive.
The sin here is not that the woman is divorced; the issue is that she is not divorced! Here we see our Lord confronting impure motives and standing in defense of the unprotected, which is entirely consistent with what is seen in Malachi 2. Jesus points a finger at the man who would wrongly send away his wife without cause or a writ, saying, in short that the man ” …who puts away his wife… makes her commit adultery…” (v. 32) The self-serving husband was responsible for her actions by failing to lawfully release her.
It must be emphasized that nowhere in the gospels did our Lord condemn the use of the Mosaic writ of divorce for legitimate cause. It is also vital to note that only when our Lord mentions the actual Mosaic writ of divorce is He referencing the act of biblical divorce. The remaining references address the offensive act of “putting away” as evidenced in more literal translations such as Young’s Literal Translation.
Read the entire fifth chapter of Matthew and see Jesus’ desire, that our hearts would be transparent before Him, knowing that although we may be able to rationalize our actions, our true intentions do not escape the Father’s notice.
Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord? And who may stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood and has not sworn deceitfully. He shall receive a blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation. Psalm 24:3-5
The emphasis: God knows your heart.
All Rights Reserved