Jesus—His Life and Message: Divorce and Remarriage

September 29, 2020

by Peter Amsterdam

(The topics of divorce and remarriage were addressed in the context of Christian ethics in the Living Christianity series; here, they are addressed as Gospel commentary.)

All three of the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—touch on the topics of divorce and remarriage. The Gospel of Luke addresses them with only one verse:

Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.1

The Gospels of Matthew and Mark address the topics more fully. The focus here will be on the account in Matthew.

[Jesus] went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.2 

Jesus traveled from Galilee in the north of Israel to Judea in the south, most likely through the area of Perea, which was to the east of the Jordan River. This was the route that many Jews would take in order to avoid going through Samaritan territory. During this journey, Jesus continued to heal those who were sick. The Gospel of Mark points out that during this trip south, crowds gathered to him. … And again, as was his custom, he taught them.3

Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”4 

It’s not surprising that as Jesus neared Jerusalem, Pharisees were there to question Him, as Jerusalem was their main base of power. It is clear by Matthew’s account that they were not genuinely seeking for an answer to this question, but rather raising a controversial issue in order to test Jesus, with the hopes that He would not be able to answer satisfactorily, which would then cause Him problems with those who held a different view.

The question wasn’t whether divorce was ever permissible, as it was accepted throughout Judaism that a man had the right to divorce his wife, based on Deuteronomy 24:1–4. A wife, however, had no right to divorce her husband. In some situations, the wife could petition the court, and the court might direct her husband to divorce her; but even in such a case, it was still the husband divorcing the wife. The question the Pharisees asked was, on what grounds was a husband justified in divorcing his wife? Could he divorce her for any reason?

Deuteronomy 24:1 states:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because mhe 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.

The debate among the rabbinic schools in Judaism revolved around the meaning of the clause because he has found some indecency in her. There were different interpretations of what this meant, with some stating that this referred to adultery, while others interpreted it as meaning that the wife did anything which upset the husband—for example, spoiling her husband’s dinner. Because there were divergent interpretations of the legitimate grounds for divorce, the Pharisees who asked the question knew that whichever side Jesus favored would result in those who disagreed being offended.

Rather than falling into the Pharisees’ trap, Jesus made use of a rabbinic method of debate which assumed “the more original, the weightier.” Jesus referred all the way back to the time of creation, when God made Adam and Eve, male and female. Because this passage of Scripture predated the Mosaic Law, it carried more weight.

He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast 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 not man separate.”5 

The Hebrew words translated as leave and hold fast (in other translations, cleave to) refer to strong and decisive action. When two people marry, they enter into a relationship which supersedes all other relationships. In those days, this meant leaving the home of their parents and setting up a new home. The bond between the husband and wife is stronger than any other relationship.

The phrase the two shall become one flesh refers to sexual relations, which intimately unites a husband and wife. Leon Morris wrote:

Jesus cites Scripture, then, to bring out the truth that marriage is more than a casual arrangement for the convenience of the two parties. It is the closest of earthly unities, and must be understood so.6

The husband and wife are no longer two isolated, separate individuals; they have been joined together by God.

Jesus didn’t side with either position, as doing so would have offended the adherents of one side or the other, which was exactly what the Pharisees were hoping for. Instead, He rejected both positions and called the Pharisees to look at what Scripture actually taught—that the marriage union was more binding than they were portraying it. They were presenting it as a union which could be dissolved by the husband—either for infidelity, or, according to some, for almost any reason; and this was contrary to what Scripture stated when God spoke about marriage at the time of creation. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.

Jesus’ answer wasn’t the response the Pharisees were hoping for, so they asked a follow-up question, pointing out that it was Moses who commanded divorce.

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”7

The Pharisees claimed that Moses commanded divorce, but that was untrue. Moses didn’t command it; rather, he set regulations in place, because divorce was already happening. Moses permitted divorce as a concession, within certain guidelines, due to the people’s hardness of heart; but divorce wasn’t God’s original intention. However, because divorce was going to happen, it was important that a divorced woman had the legal right to remarry. Until the husband gave the wife a certificate of divorce, she remained married to him, and therefore couldn’t remarry. This certificate stated that she was no longer married to her husband, meaning he no longer had any legal claim on her and she was free to marry another. This provision was not meant to endorse divorce, but rather was a concession because of the hardness of people’s hearts.

I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.8

Though Moses made provision for divorce, Jesus made the point that marriage is intended to be for life, and therefore the Jewish debate about when it was permitted to divorce one’s spouse was not fully in alignment with God’s desires. Jesus did allow an exception for cases where one of the spouses committed sexual immorality, translated in other Bible versions as fornication (KJV), immorality (NAS), and marital unfaithfulness (NIV), all of which point to sexual relations with someone other than one’s spouse.

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”9

The disciples, presumably at a later time, commented on Jesus’ teaching; their understanding being that in light of what Jesus had said, it would be better not to marry rather than to find oneself in a difficult marriage which one cannot leave.

Jesus’ statement regarding the permanence of the marriage commitment was expressed in strong terms, especially at a time when a marriage could be dissolved by the husband simply writing the necessary formula, signing it before witnesses, and handing it to his wife. He was making the point that this was no way to treat the God-given ordinance of marriage. He wasn’t defining under what circumstances a divorce may or may not take place.

He said to them, “No one can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.”10

In referring to this saying, Jesus may have been referring to what the disciples had said, that it is better not to marry. If so, Jesus was saying that for some people, this is true; though it is not a way of life that all can follow. He then went on to speak about those who choose not to marry.

There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.11

When Jesus referenced those who were eunuchs from birth in this passage, He was probably referring to people who had a genetic defect. In the case of those who have been made eunuchs by men, He was referring to those who had been physically castrated. Leon Morris wrote:

In the world of the first century quite a few men had been emasculated by people in high places. This might be done as a punishment, or to provide safe people to work in harems and the like.12

Jesus then spoke of those who are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Throughout Christian history, there have always been those who have chosen to forgo marriage in order to focus all their efforts on God’s work, pursuing their particular vocation in service to God. Jesus didn’t marry, neither did John the Baptist.

Jesus wasn’t saying that being a eunuch is a higher calling of some sort, nor that all of His followers should remain single. Rather, some are called to serve in marriage, and some are called to serve as singles. Each person’s path is individual, each one’s calling is different. Our goal, as believers, is to love and serve the Lord to the best of our ability in whatever situation He has called us to.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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1 Luke 16:18.

2Matthew 19:1–2.

3 Mark 10:1.

4 Matthew 19:3.

5 Matthew 19:4–6.

6 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 481.

7 Matthew 19:7–8.

8 Matthew 19:9.

9 Matthew 19:10.

10 Matthew 19:11.

11 Matthew 19:12.

12 Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, 485.