Did Jesus Really Mean What He Said About Divorce?

Did Jesus Really Mean What He Said About Divorce?

Occasionally people will ask me whether or not I think God hates divorced people, usually former Catholics.

Thousands of years ago God said, “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16).

It’s a rare thing in the Bible when God is quoted as saying he hates something. If God says he HATES something, you better believe he REALLY hates it.

I think God hates divorce because it…

  • Rips families apart
  • Decimates finances
  • Guts children emotionally
  • And forces people to start their lives over with a limp

Yet, it doesn’t take a PhD in New Testament Studies to wonder if God hates divorced people as well, at least judging by the words of Jesus in the gospels.

What did Jesus really say about divorce and remarriage?

Divorce in Jesus’ Day

If homosexuality is the watershed issue that faces the church of the 21st century, then a comparable issue that faced God’s people in the 1st century was divorce and remarriage. The controversy centered on a single verse from the Old Testament law:

“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house…” Deuteronomy 24:1

The controversy centered on what it meant for a husband to find “something indecent” about his wife that would justify divorcing her.

What did “something indecent” actually mean?

During Jesus’ time, there were two schools of thought.

  • Those who adopted a “strict” interpretation thought that “something indecent” meant adultery alone justified a divorce.
  • Those who adopted a “loose” interpretation thought that “something indecent” could be applied to many different things in addition to adultery.

In fact, many rabbis in Jesus’ day taught that a man could divorce his wife:

  • If she gave him a bad reputation
  • If she burned his toast
  • If she didn’t give him children
  • If she let his food spoil
  • If she “let herself go” physically
  • If she went in public with unkept hair
  • If she spoke to another man in the street
  • If she spoke disrespectfully about his parents in front of him
  • If she spoke loudly at home and the neighbors heard her


Jesus’ Perspective on Divorce

This loose perspective interpretation prevailed during Jesus’ day.

Consequently, when Jesus walked the streets he rubbed shoulders with women who were divorced, kicked out of their homes, and often times forced into prostitution to support themselves and their children, all because of their husband’s whims and power plays.

This “loose” interpretation seemingly allowed  husbands to discard their wives at will.

It was in this cultural context that Jesus was approached by a group of Pharisees to see where he stood on the issue. Matthew 19:3-9 records the incident.

Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

Basically, they were asking, “Do you adopt this ‘loose’ interpretation of God’s word?”

This was like standing on the podium of the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting and being asked, “Do you believe Americans have the right to carry concealed weapons?”

His reply was telling,

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Well, the Pharisees fired back,

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus angrily responded,

“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.

Then he looked around and said, “I’m going to settle this issue once and for all.”

“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

And that was the final word.


Why He Said What He Did

Jesus adopted the “strict” interpretation, but here’s what you have to understand: Jesus did it to protect women.

This was a command given specifically to men about how to treat their wives who…

  • had no rights
  • were considered their husband’s property
  • had no legal recourse if they disagreed with their husband’s decision
  • and whose families would not accept them back after they had been divorced

Simply put, Jesus spoke these words in Matthew 19 to protect women from abuse.

Not out of hate.

And definitely not out of a desire to provide a comprehensive statement about divorce and remarriage for all Christians everywhere for time eternal, amen.

The Question

So let me address the question that obviously comes up,

“If I’ve been divorced, but my former spouse didn’t commit adultery, can I get remarried?”

A number of years ago I heard a Pastor talking about how he gave a stirring talk on the life of Moses and how, even though Moses killed a man, God gave him a second chance and used him in a mighty way. That Pastor said he came back to his office afterwards and found a note on his desk that said,

“Dear Gene, I wish I had murdered someone like Moses did, instead of getting a divorce. At least then I would have gotten a second chance.”

Many of my divorced friends express the same sentiment.

That’s why if you’ve been divorced, I want you to know that I believe…

  • when you consider the whole counsel of scripture
  • when you realize that one sin isn’t any worse than another one
  • when you realize that there is a difference between a “moment” of sin and a “lifestyle of sin”
  • when you understand God’s grace in all it’s fullness
  • and when you realize that “every person in Christ is a new person”

I believe when you take all of these things into account, that if a Christian who has been divorced (and their spouse was not unfaithful), that after taking an extended period of time to heal, seek counsel, and prepare to make their next commitment for life, I believe the Bible teaches they can get remarried.

People may disagree with me, but I believe that is what Jesus was trying to teach.

What do you think?

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