The Word On Divorce and Remarriage


Witten by:  Steven R. Key

Matthew 19:1-12

Having considered this morning the seventh commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” I decided that, not being in the middle of any sermon series, we have a fitting opportunity today in the second worship service to address a related subject that has become a matter of great importance in our day, affecting almost every broader family.

In our country the number of divorces each year nearly equals the number of first-time marriages. And of the number of marriages that are conducted in the U.S. each year, just a little more than half of them are first-time marriages for both partners. Which means that nearly half of the marriages conducted in our country involve remarriage for at least one partner. And with few exceptions, percentage-wise, those remarriages are not those of widows or widowers, but of those who have been divorced at least once. Almost every family in our day, even in our own churches, have family members, if not immediate family members — brothers or sisters, sons or daughters, at least extended family members who are divorced and remarried. For that very reason we ought to consider these words of Jesus as timely and important for us.

In addition, it is important that we are reminded of what Scripture teaches concerning marriage, divorce and remarriage, because also in this area if we follow the ways of the world, even the church world in our day, we shall be led far astray from God’s ordinances, into the pathway of grievously dishonoring holy marriage. It is no secret that almost every denomination of churches in our country, including most churches that were historically of Reformed persuasion, have made allowance for divorce and remarriage, even for every cause. Even though divorce is called a tragedy, and the consequences of marital breakups are seen as devastating for children, most churches turn the other way, so to speak, and proclaim a certain forgiveness for divorce and remarriage, allowing such members who divorce and remarry to remain members in good standing, who also have a rightful place at the communion table in fellowship with Jesus Christ. And, in fact, this practice has become so common, that most church members hardly give a thought as to what the Bible says about marriage, divorce and remarriage. If the church allows remarriage of divorced parties; if the church winks at divorce for every cause, it must be that such is acceptable. Even though on that day that he says, “I do,” a man perhaps would hope for his marriage to last, in the back of his mind he probably recognizes that if it doesn’t work out there are other options open to him. He may look for another woman with whom perhaps he may be more compatible, and may marry again. What else should he think, when divorce and remarriage is so openly accepted in the churches of our day?

But although the extent of the divorce-remarriage problem is greater today than at any time in history, and although the United States, the so-called “Christian nation” tops the list in this problem, it is not a new problem. Not at all. It is a matter that is addressed by Holy Scripture. The problem was seen already way back in the Old Testament, and continued to affect the church when Jesus made his earthly sojourn.

In the passage before us, Matthew 19, we find that the Pharisees used the issue of divorce and remarriage in an attempt to trap Jesus, Whom they hated. While Jesus continued to preach and perform His wonders of healing among the multitudes who followed Him, “The Pharisees also come unto him,” we read. But their purpose in coming to Him is exposed by Matthew, as well as by Mark (in Mark 10). The purpose of the Pharisees was well recognized by Jesus. They didn’t come to Him with the sincere desire to hear His preaching, or to acknowledge His Godhead as revealed in the wonders He performed. They came “tempting him.” It was their purpose to find something for which they could accuse Him, preferably something so serious, that it would involve Him in charges by the government, which would lead to His demise or even His death. This is just one occasion, of course, where we find the Pharisees attempting to catch Jesus in their trap of deception. But it is striking how they approach Him. They say unto him, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?”

What were the Pharisees looking for, when they presented this question to Jesus? How were they looking to trap Him by such a question? The historical context will answer that question — if not entirely, then certainly in part. We read in verse 1 that Jesus came into the coasts of Judea beyond Jordan. That would be on the east side of the Jordan River, which was the region of Perea. That area of Judea belonged to the territory of Herod Antipas. It was very dangerous territory, therefore, to take any sort of a strong stand against divorce. You remember that Herod had taken as his wife, Herodias, who had been married to his brother Philip. He was married, therefore, to a woman who had been another man’s wife, and whose husband was still living. It was precisely because John the Baptist had spoken to Herod about his unlawful marriage, that John had been imprisoned and finally executed. Of that we read in Matthew 14. Furthermore, we read in Mark 3:6, that the Pharisees had taken counsel with the Herodians against Jesus, “how they might destroy him.”

It appears, therefore, that on the one hand they were setting a deliberate trap, thinking that when Jesus’ answer would be reported to Herod, it would lead to His execution, as had been the case with John the Baptist. If that plan did not work out, there were still other possibilities arising from this approach. Undoubtedly the Pharisees also took into account the kinds of people who followed Jesus. Many of them followed the rather prevalent teaching of the day that divorce could be readily obtained for virtually any cause. The Pharisees probably thought that if Jesus would set forth a strict view on divorce and remarriage, many of his followers would turn against Him. If Jesus’ answer still would not bring Him into that trap, the Pharisees were convinced that they would be able to catch Him contradicting the law of Moses. So they had reason to use divorce and remarriage as the subject with which they would attempt to take Jesus down. God, Who sovereignly governs all things, had something else in mind, however. He would use this occasion to show us how Christ restores and maintains the holy and unbreakable bond of marriage.

I call your attention to this text under the theme:

THE WORD ON DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE

And when I speak of The Word, I refer to God’s Word, not mine. Any objection against the teaching of Holy Scripture is not to be leveled against me. Christ speaks here concerning divorce and remarriage. I can only expound the Scriptures in this regard, calling you before the Word of God. His, after all, is the Word, the authoritative Word before which we must bow. That is why I refer to THE WORD ON DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE.

We shall notice:

I. THE PERMANENCY OF MARRIAGE

II. THE CONDEMNATION OF DIVORCE

III. THE FORBIDDING OF REMARRIAGE

I. THE PERMANENCY OF MARRIAGE.

IN THE CONTEXT — AND THAT SERVES AS THE VERY FOUNDATION OF VERSE 9 — JESUS TEACHES US THAT THE VERY INSTITUTION OF MARRIAGE WAS AS AN UNBREAKABLE BOND.

The Pharisees, in the context of society’s widely accepted practice of divorce and remarriage, ask Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” Very striking was Jesus’ response. “Have ye not read?” That is, what does the Bible say? How many today are willing to stand before the teaching of Scripture in answer to the question of whether or not divorce and remarriage is lawful? Christ immediately points us to the Scriptures. They alone provide the authoritative answer. So Jesus says, “What is the teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures concerning the question you present to me?” And then He quotes from the second chapter of Genesis. “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?” That is Scripture. And therefore Jesus draws out the necessary, the inescapable conclusion: “Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Marriage is a divine institution, says Jesus. It is a bond that God alone establishes. It is important that we understand clearly the significance of this. Our Lord is not merely saying that when a man and a woman are united in marriage, it will be difficult, and perhaps cause psychological damage, to pull them apart. He is saying more. By pointing us back to the institution of marriage as established by God Himself, He is saying that God Himself is involved in the marriage bond. God has joined together. Marriage does not begin with man. Marriage is not simply the establishment of what one man and one woman desire. Adam and Eve did not discover marriage for themselves. The origin of marriage, of every marriage, is with God, and therefore God rules over it; God determines what it is; God determines its duration and its permanence.

GOD HIMSELF JOINS TOGETHER ONE MAN AND ONE WOMAN IN AN EXCLUSIVE RELATIONSHIP, WHERE THE TWO ARE MADE ONE FLESH.

One man and one woman, brought together in marriage, dwell in an exclusive relationship in which they are to cleave one to another. Two are made one flesh. The permanency of this exclusive relationship of marriage is the emphasis in its very institution. “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Let no man come along and claim a higher authority than Him Who established marriage as an unbreakable bond. Let no one attempt to wipe away the declaration of God. What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.

“Thus saith the Scriptures,” says Jesus. “And on that basis I maintain the doctrine of marriage in the New Testament kingdom of God.” So likewise must we, beloved. And we have not only the institution of marriage as found in Genesis 2, together with all the other instruction concerning marriage in the Old Testament. We have besides the Word of God in the chapter before us, and in Matthew 5 and Mark 10, Luke 16:18, the opening verses of Romans 7, as well as I Corinthians 7, Ephesians 5, and we could go on. Scripture throughout teaches the permanency of the marriage union.

It is not man’s right to sever the marriage bond. And ultimately such severance is not even possible, so long as the husband and wife live. Only the death of either the husband or the wife can break the marriage bond. The permanency of this cleaving is exactly this: as long as they both shall live. That is confirmed in Romans 7:2,3: “For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.”

It is, of course, possible in our day, as it was in Jesus’ day, to secure a divorce legally. The magistrates make it very easy in our day to obtain a divorce decree. Especially easy is it, if there are no children involved. But even when there are children involved, to obtain a divorce is made easy. The hang-up may only come over the distribution of property and child custody. The grounds themselves for divorce in our day have been made indisputable. But our Lord, pointing to the institution of marriage from the beginning, and the significance of the fact that God alone establishes that bond, says, “It is impossible to undo what God has done. God has joined a man and a woman together. They have become one flesh. To divorce is to take up a separate bed and board, but it does not dissolve that which can only be broken in death.

This reference to the institution of marriage is worthy of an entire sermon. But that is not what I would consider with you as the main theme today. I have preached that in your hearing before, during the series from the early chapters of Genesis, particularly Genesis 2:18-25, MARRIAGE’S DIVINE INSTITUTION. The tape of that sermon is still available, I am sure, should you want to review that text once again. But I call your attention today in this first point to the PERMANENCY OF MARRIAGE, as the background for that which Jesus teaches in Matthew 19:9. Jesus here makes a statement that was astonishing even to his disciples! It is found just as amazing in our own day. He says that whatever takes places legally in divorce does not break that marriage bond in the eyes of God.

II. JESUS ALSO SETS FORTH THE DIVINE CONDEMNATION OF DIVORCE.

BUT IT IS RIGHT HERE WHERE THE PHARISEES THINK THEY HAVE JESUS IN THEIR TRAP.

The Pharisees well understood what Jesus was teaching. But they would set Him at contradiction with Moses. They would accuse Him of departing from God’s law given through Moses. “They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?” “Jesus has just maintained that marriage is an unbreakable bond. He has prohibited divorce. He shows Himself, therefore, the enemy of God’s law! See, we have exposed Him! So think the Pharisees. They refer here to Deuteronomy 24. And certainly it is necessary that we consider that passage in this connection. This is what we read in Deuteronomy 24:1-4: “When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife. And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.” A rather striking passage, isn’t it. It would seem, on the surface, to contradict Jesus’ words. Perhaps the Pharisees have a case! But wait; let’s see how Jesus answers.

“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.” Now there are a couple things that we need to notice in Jesus’ response. In the first place, He points out emphatically that Moses never commanded divorce. He did not command it; he didn’t make it legitimate; he didn’t excuse it. He suffered it. He permitted; he allowed that which was wrong. For Jesus says, “From the beginning it was not so.” Moses gave permission to put away one’s wife in some circumstances, and for the order of society gave specific legislation concerning such putting away. But he did so — and this is also a point of emphasis here: “Because of the hardness of your hearts.” There is an element in Deuteronomy 24 which speaks condemnation to the children of Israel for violating the divine ordinance of God concerning marriage.

Deuteronomy 24 reveals what Moses observed happening among some of the hard-hearted Israelites. They were putting away their wives, not for adultery. The Old Testament law commanded the adulteress to be stoned to death. This wasn’t a matter of adultery. Men were putting away their wives for some uncleanness, something in their wives that didn’t satisfy them. They were so hard of heart toward the Word of God, and toward the institution of holy marriage, that they were putting away their wives, attempting in that way to find freedom to seek self-satisfaction in another woman.

What Moses does in effect is to say, “If you are so perverse as to put away your wives because of something in her that doesn’t satisfy you, that is displeasing in your eyes, then I will at least make it less easy for you. You men may not merely throw your wives away. You may not simply walk away from your marriage. Not only so, but when you divorce your wife, I will make it impossible for you ever to have her back, should she marry another. There will be no reconciliation. Should you find that the grass isn’t, after all, greener on the other side of the fence, you will not be able to return to the pleasant pastures of she whom God had given you. Moses’ commandment, you see, was only a regulation for the order of society, and particularly for the protection of the wives. It was not a blessing upon divorce. It was something that he found necessary because of the hardness of your hearts.

But, Christ says, from the beginning it was not so. Jesus does not find fault with Moses. He points to the hardness of heart among the people with whom he labored. Still more, Jesus confronts his very audience with the accusation, “because of the hardness of your hearts,” Moses suffered it. But from the beginning it was not so. Moses’ allowance because of the hardness of their hearts, was an allowance that was not according to what God had established at the beginning. To appeal to this suffering of Moses, in support of the perverse prevalence of divorce and remarriage, reveals a hard heart against God’s divine institution of that holy and unbreakable bond of marriage.

That is evident not only from what Jesus says here; but that is evident also in the Old Testament from what we read in Malachi 2:14-16. There the Lord lays charges against the children of Israel for their breach of holy marriage. They continued to put away their wives with the same treachery as observed by Moses. And Malachi says, “the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously.” That treachery is clearly set forth in verse 16. They had been putting away their wives. But God says this: “yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.” What you have done, in putting away your wife, has not set aside the fact that she is your wife. “For did not God make one?” Malachi says. “Let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away.” The Lord upholds the same truth here: Moses suffered it, because of the hardness of your hearts, “but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you I, Who am the greater than Moses, — 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.”

BUT NOW IN VERSE 9 WE FIND A VERY SIGNIFICANT EXCEPTION TO OUR LORD’S CONDEMNATION OF THE PUTTING AWAY OF ONE’S SPOUSE.

“Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery.” In all of the passages which speak of “putting away” one’s spouse, there is only one exception which allows for that “putting away.” That exception is the sin of fornication. There are two questions that must be faced in this connection. In the first place, what is meant by the “putting away” of one’s wife? Does that refer to a divorce which breaks the marriage bond, and thus confers the right to remarry? The only alternative, you understand, is to insist that this “putting away” refers only to a separation from bed and board, what we might call a “separation divorce,” in which case the marriage bond is still in existence before God, and would forbid remarriage in any instance. The second question has to do with the placement of this “except clause.” Does this except clause speak only to the “putting away”? Or does it apply also to remarriage? These questions stand very closely related.

To answer those questions it is necessary to look more carefully at the sentence itself and at the sentence within its preceding context. Let us understand that the point of this statement by our Lord was to emphasize that divorce and remarriage is forbidden, because it is adulterous. And if you question the application of the except clause, then we will say that the purpose of this statement is to emphasize that divorce and remarriage, at least in most circumstances, is forbidden, because it is adulterous. (I will show how remarriage is forbidden in all circumstances; but you must concede that the point of this text is to show, at least in most circumstances, that divorce and remarriage is forbidden.) It is forbidden because of the permanency of marriage’s divine institution in each case. That is Jesus’ point here. The point is not the exception. The main point is to maintain the permanency of the marriage bond and the condemnation, therefore, of divorce.

And what is the point of this word of our Lord in its context? It is to add weight to Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question. It is not right to divorce, because God the Creator, from the beginning, made the marriage union which not only must not be broken, but cannot be broken, because to remarry after divorce is adultery. So the whole point of this text in its context is to reinforce the command not to divorce.

Now, without taking away from the thrust of His argument, Jesus slips in this exception, to permit a “putting away” in the case of fornication. The except clause applies only to the “putting away.” If Jesus had wanted to teach that fornication is also an exception to the prohibition against remarriage, He would have put that exception after the words “marry another.” Then the text would have read this way: “Whosoever shall put away his wife and shall marry another, except it be for fornication, committeth adultery.” The text does not read that way. Our interpretation is also in harmony with the clearer passage of Matthew 5:31,32. There we read: “It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.”

So, in summary, the putting away of one’s spouse is forbidden by God, with one exception. In the matter of fornication, the marriage may be brought into such a state of upheaval that it becomes necessary for the two to live separately. And fornication, as I explained this morning, is any form of sexual sin. It is a very broad term, encompassing a wide realm of perversity. Adultery is the narrower term, referring to sexual sin against the marriage union. Jesus does not command the “putting away” in the case of fornication. The marriage may yet be spared in the way of repentance and reconciliation. And all praise to God when such a wonder work of His grace is seen! But our Lord recognizes that the sin of fornication, committed by either the husband or the wife, can so mutilate the marriage bond, that the two must live separately. There may, in such a case, be a putting away, a separation from bed and board.

But such a horrendous attack upon marriage by a sinful husband or wife, is not an action which breaks the bond so that the marriage is dissolved in God’s sight. It does not make way for another marriage. Couples can live separately–although they should not, except in the case of fornication. Couples can even become legally divorced in the eyes of the state, separating not only physically but financially, and making custody arrangements for their children. But what they cannot do is destroy the oneness God gave them when they married. They can undo their own work; but they cannot undo the work of God. God has joined together. And together they remain, until God Himself comes to put them asunder in death.

III. OUR LORD CLEARLY FORBIDS ALL REMARRIAGE OF DIVORCED PERSONS.

A. THAT FORBIDDING OF REMARRIAGE IN EVERY INSTANCE WHEN ONE’S ORIGINAL SPOUSE IS STILL LIVING IS TAUGHT IN EVERY PLACE WHERE THE BIBLE SPEAKS OF REMARRIAGE.

Hear the Lord in Luke 16:18: “Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.” One of the fundamental principles of Bible interpretation is that where you have two similar passages, texts which address the same truths, the more difficult are always to be interpreted in the light of those passages which are more clear. Luke 16:18 is clear. The same is taught in Mark 10. Jesus does not contradict those passages with what He says in Matthew 19:9. He says, The man who puts away his wife and married another commits adultery. He is guilty before God. The husband in this case is altogether in the wrong. He put away his wife. She was not an unfaithful wife. She did not commit fornication. He simply put her away. He was unfaithful to her. Is not she then free in such a case? She, after all, would in our day be regarded as “the innocent party.” May she not then marry again? The Lord says “no.” “Whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.” And because it is impossible to commit adultery alone, she is also guilty of adultery in marrying another man.

This is the Word of God concerning marriage, divorce and remarriage. This is the rule for all who would be citizens of the kingdom of heaven. This is the narrow way concerning marriage, divorce and remarriage, the narrow way that leads into the everlasting kingdom of God’s dear Son.

When Jesus teaches that remarriage involves one in the sin of adultery, a continuous sin, this can only be because the original marriage — the oneness, the joining together — still exists. That is why a divorced Christian, even when reconciliation is no longer possible, must continue to think: “I am still married, and therefore not free to contemplate marriage to anyone else.” While married, we would not think of marrying a second partner. But that married person’s divorce, in the eyes of God, changes nothing. He is still married, not free to enter a second marriage, so long as he first mate lives. Exactly the same applies to a single person who is attracted to one who is divorced. If that single person is a child of God, he or she would not think of marrying one who is already married to another. But exactly the same must apply, when he or she meets a divorced person. Even though that person may be living alone, that person is still married in God’s eyes. You and I must consider that divorced person as married, lest we fall into the sin of adultery. For we know that no adulterer, i.e., no one who continues impenitent in that sin, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

We recognize that for many this Word of God is a hard saying. It is exactly this position that stunned not only the Pharisees, but Jesus’ own disciples. That also confirms what we have taught today in the exposition of this Word of God. If Jesus had merely reiterated the conservatively accepted position which held to the right of a man to divorce and remarry in the case of his wife’s marital unfaithfulness, certainly we would not have seen the reaction of the disciples in verse 10. They were stunned by Jesus’ teaching! “His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. But he said unto them, all men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given….He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.” Will you receive this Word of God?

I AM VERY AWARE OF THE DIFFICULTY IN WHICH MANY OF GOD’S CHILDREN FIND THEMSELVES.

I am also acutely aware of the emotions that are stoked by this whole matter, especially when it involves those who are close to us. I say again, there is hardly one of us who is untouched, at least in our broader families, by the sin of divorce and remarriage. And particularly in the case of one who would be acknowledged as the innocent party, we have an instinctive sympathy. There are children of God, even in our own churches, who in sins of youth married unbelievers who later showed themselves unfaithful. There are others who married those who called themselves Christian, who were even Protestant Reformed; but who proved to be unspiritual and unfaithful, also to the holy marriage bond. (That, by the way, ought to serve as a reminder to our youth, Be careful whom you date and whom you marry. You must marry in the Lord. That is God’s command. You may not be unequally yoked with one who is not with you spiritually. But don’t be deceived merely because one calls himself or herself Christian, or even Protestant Reformed. See evidence of spiritual-mindedness and godliness, a submissive heart toward the Scriptures.) But we recognize those who have been forsaken by a spouse who was unfaithful, who divorced their mate, leaving them single in the church. And we sympathize with their difficult state.

If I could change the rules to allow the innocent party to remarry, I would. But I have no such authority. Sometimes, not just with divorce and remarriage, but with respect to many sinful practices, church members want us to change the rules, to make allowances, to wink at sin. Beloved, we have no authority to change the rules! We have no authority to change the precepts of God! Marriage is God’s institution. The rules of Christ concerning marriage, divorce and remarriage are unchangeable. They constitute the inviolable law for the citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

We must maintain the holy bond of marriage, an unbreakable bond. Such marriage, according to Ephesians 5, is a symbol of the relationship between God and His people in Christ. God is our husband and we the Church are His wife, His bride. God is faithful to us. He never divorces us, to marry someone else. He made an unbreakable promise to us who are in Christ Jesus, a promise that is as unchangeable as He Himself. I will be your God, your Husband, your Savior, forever. He is faithful, beloved. And by grace we also are faithful to Him. We own no other husband or lover. We give ourselves exclusively to Him. That, after all, is the Christian life. We give ourselves to Him also when He calls us into submissive to His doctrine of marriage.

Our culture must not determine our stand on marriage, divorce and remarriage. Even the church at large must not determine our stand. The church, after all, most often stands with the world. God Himself determines our stand. We submit ourselves to His Word. What do the Scriptures say? That is the question for us. And therefore as churches we take this stand. This is to our blessing. To walk in obedience to God in this regard has been for the strength of our churches, of our homes, our families, and our enjoyment of God’s covenant with us and our children. Yes, there will be those who suffer hardship, severe hardship, in the way of obedience to this ordinance of God. Discipleship is costly–to me in one way; to you in another. To follow Christ is to live a life of self-denial. Count the cost. But then take up your cross and follow Him. “He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.”