Jesus—His Life and Message: The Sermon on the Mount

February 23, 2016

by Peter Amsterdam

(You can read about the intent for and overview of this series in this introductory article.)

The Law and the Prophets (Part 4)

Before delving in to this article, I want to acknowledge that the topic of divorce is very complex and personal and can be deeply emotional. The unhappiness of having a relationship which was meant to last become broken and abandoned can be difficult to bear. Having a deep love and commitment devolve over time into lovelessness and indifference, or into conflict, bitterness, or despair, is sensitive—and becomes even more so when factoring in the difficulty faced by children of a divorced couple.

In working my way through the teachings of Jesus, I wasn’t looking forward to addressing this issue, as many of us have been divorced. The purpose of this article is to help bring about an understanding of what Jesus taught on the subject, and the intent of His teachings; it’s not to pass judgment on anyone, nor does it address the multitude of reasons people divorce. For those of us who have been divorced, it’s important to remember that whatever role our sins, mistakes, or misunderstandings might have played in our divorce, they are cleansed through Jesus’ sacrifice for us.

In the Sermon on the Mount, after addressing the issue of adultery—teaching that it’s not enough to avoid the act of adultery, but that people must guard their hearts from temptations which arise (via their eyes, hands, or feet), Jesus moved on to the matter of divorce. Following His continuing pattern, He first stated what Old Testament Scripture said, then added His teaching—in exaggerated language, in order to make His point.

This isn’t the only place within the Gospels that Jesus spoke of divorce, and in covering this topic it’s helpful to look at the other things He said about it, as well as what was written elsewhere in Scripture—so I’ll touch on those in this article.

Jesus began with:

It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.1

The certificate of divorce that Jesus was referring to is spoken of in 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, and if she goes and becomes another mans wife, 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, 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.

This is the only place in the Law of Moses where divorce is directly addressed, and it is spoken of here only in the sense of a regulatory law explaining the legal sequence that should be followed when a divorce occurs. The Law doesn’t speak of the rightness or wrongness of divorce, nor does it codify the permissible causes for divorce.2

This passage assumes that a husband has the right to divorce his wife, but the basis of that right is not spelled out—either here or anywhere else in the Old Testament. This assumption of the right to divorce is seen when the Pharisees asked Jesus: Is it lawful to divorce ones wife for any cause?3 Notice they didn't ask if it was acceptable for a wife to divorce her husband. R. T. France explained: Divorce was a purely a male prerogative, which required no legal hearing, merely the husbands decision: Jewish law made no provision for a woman to initiate divorce.4 (Mark 10:12 speaks of a woman divorcing her husband,5 which might have been included because in Roman law women could initiate divorce, and Mark’s Gospel was written in a non-Jewish milieu.)

In the Deuteronomy passage, we’re told that the first man’s reason for divorcing his wife is that he has found some indecency in her. The second man divorces her because he hates her, or as translated in other versions, turns against her, dislikes her, detests her. Because these verses in Deuteronomy were the only Scripture addressing divorce, the issue of what would be valid reasons for divorce was an ongoing debate among Jewish religious leaders. The teachings of two influential rabbis, Hillel and Shammai, both of whom lived shortly before Jesus, differed on the reasons men could divorce their wives. The “school of Shammai” taught that the sole ground for divorce was some grave matrimonial offense, something “unseemly” or “indecent.” The “school of Hillel” held a very lax view, where a man could divorce his wife for such trivial offenses as burning a meal, or even if he just lost interest and became interested in a more beautiful woman. When the Pharisees asked Jesus in Matthew 19, Is it lawful to divorce ones wife for any cause?, they were asking whether He backed the Shammai policy or the Hillel policy regarding divorcing one’s wife.

Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” 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.” 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. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.6 

Mark 10:2–12 makes the same point, but does not include the clause except for sexual immorality.7 Luke 16:18 makes the same point, again without making exceptions for adultery.8

Returning to the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 5:31–32 we see that, similar to the preceding examples in this passage, Jesus’ comments on divorce serve to demonstrate that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.9

Jesus begins by pointing out what was said in the Law of Moses: Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce. The certificate of divorce, called a gett, is a document giving a divorced woman the right to remarry. The standard wording is translated as “You are free to marry any man.” Without such a certificate, a divorced woman who remarries would be accused of adultery.10

In paraphrasing what Moses said in Deuteronomy 24, Jesus was basically articulating the laxity and permissiveness that many observant Jews held to, that “if you want to divorce your wife, simply give her a certificate of divorce.”11 However, Jesus had a more sacred view of marriage. In the passage quoted above, He didn’t answer the question the Pharisees asked Him, but instead directed them back to the intent of marriage, reminding them what God had said in Genesis 1 and 2: God made men and women to leave their parents and join together and become united as one flesh. They were then one unit, and there was no intent that they would separate.

His response to their follow-up question was telling. 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. Deuteronomy allowed this behavior as a concession to human weakness, whereas the Pharisees considered this concession a command.

In His response, Jesus pointed back to God’s original intention for marriage, and made the point that something changes when two people marry—the two become one flesh. That unity, that becoming one, is related to our being made in the likeness of God.

God is a trinity, three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—yet they are one. In a sense, marriage reflects God’s unity, as two individuals become united as one and yet remain as individuals. In God’s eyes, they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.

Jesus was expressing the depth of what marriage means and showing that God’s view is that a married couple should never dissolve their marriage (as per Mark and Luke), or only dissolve it when there is “sexual immorality”—meaning adultery (as per Matthew).

In responding to the Pharisees in Matthew 19, Jesus was saying that marriage is a sacred covenant between two people, and that God did not intend for marriages to be dissolved, but because of the hardness of men’s hearts, He wanted to ensure that divorced women had some protection—thus a decree of divorce was commanded.

According to Jesus, the ideal was that marriages endure, because they are meant to be a reflection of God. He went on to say that they shouldn’t be dissolved unless the union, the oneness, was no longer intact due to one of the marriage partners breaking it through adultery. He went further by saying that when divorce occurs, if the wife or husband remarries, they are committing adultery, because in God’s sight the original union is still intact.

Similar to the other six statements in Matthew 5 which say “you have heard it said … but I say unto you,” Jesus was using hyperbole and rhetorical overstatement to make His point. In overstating the ban on divorce, by saying no one should ever divorce (with the exception of adultery in Matthew), and that if they do and then remarry, they are committing adultery, Jesus wasn’t speaking in absolutes, any more than when He said to pluck out your eye or drop your sacrifice at the altar. It wasn’t meant to lay down the law but to reassert an ideal and make divorce a sin, thereby disturbing the current complacency.12 In Matthew, an exception to the divorce ban is made for infidelity; later, Paul makes an exception for abandonment.13 These exceptions infer that in some cases there are legitimate grounds for divorce.

Author Craig Keener wrote:

Pauls and Matthews exceptions (Matthew 5:32; 19:9; 1 Corinthians 7:15, 2729) constitute two-thirds of the extant first-century Christian references to divorce, and both point to the same kind of exception: the person whose marriage is ended against his or her will. In other words, Jesus’ exceptions do not constitute an excuse to escape a difficult marriage; they exonerate those who genuinely wished to save their marriage but were unable to do so because their spouses unrepentant adultery, abandonment, or abuse de facto destroyed the marriage bonds.14

Keener summarizes a point from author Craig Blomberg, who explains that other exceptions probably exist, but they must be governed by the principle that unites the two biblical exceptions: (1) both infidelity and abandonment destroy one of the basic components of marriage; (2) both leave one party without other options if attempts at reconciliation are spurned: and (3) both use divorce as a last resort. That some will abuse this freedom cannot make us insensitive to the innocent party who genuinely needs that freedom.15

What Jesus taught earlier in the Sermon on the Mount about reconciliation applies in this case too. The best would be for married couples to reconcile, overcome their differences, and stay married. Christian denominations have various views on divorce and remarriage, which I won’t cover here, but all emphasize forgiveness and reconciliation as a starting point when a marriage is troubled.

Jesus lived in a time when many Jewish men divorced their wives for virtually any reason. Jesus’ declaration that divorce was never allowed (except for adultery in Matthew) confirmed the original understanding of marriage being a permanent union ordained by God. Jesus’ strong statement should not be taken to mean that divorce is never an option, but neither is it meant to be a mechanism to leave a marriage because it’s difficult. Poor communication, incompatibility, financial problems, lack of commitment to the relationship, changes in priorities, or finding someone you consider more desirable are not valid reasons for divorce.

There are legitimate reasons to divorce, and in such cases, when all attempts to reconcile have failed, or when the erring partner refuses to change their ways and the marriage cannot be saved, or the spouse or children are in danger, then divorce is permissible. If proper measures have been taken to reconcile and save the marriage, but the marriage is “dead” and all attempts to resuscitate it fail, there comes a point where it’s necessary to admit it has reached that state and that it’s time to take it off of “life support.”

Jesus reaffirmed God’s ideal of marriage as a lifelong covenant between two people who have become one. This is the true intent for marriage. However, when the marriage covenant has been broken beyond repair, the Bible allows for divorce as an exception when all attempts at reconciliation, restoration, and renewal have failed. This is not the ideal and is to be prevented whenever possible, in order to honor the marriage commitment and fulfill one’s responsibilities to one’s spouse and any children born into the marriage union.


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 Matthew 5:31–32.

2 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 206.

3 Matthew 19:3.

4 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 207.

5 “…if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:12).

6 Matthew 19:3–9.

7 Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. Therefore a man shall leave his father and 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.”

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

9 Matthew 5:20.

10 A gett is still required by Orthodox Jews who divorce today—in Israel, the US, and elsewhere. It’s a religious requirement and is not required by the civil law of the country. However, without it, a woman is put in a bad position, as no one within the Orthodox community will marry her.

11 McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 99.

12 W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew: International Critical Commentary, Vol. 1: Introduction and Commentary on Matthew I-VII (Edinburgh: T &T Clark), 532.

13 1 Corinthians 7:15, 27–28.

14 Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 191–92.

15 Craig L. Blomberg, The New American Commentary: Matthew (Nashville: Broadman Press), quoted in Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 191.