Divorce (Matthew 5:31-32)

Does Jesus really expect me to stay in this difficult marriage?

Open Matthew 5:31-32.

If your life or the life of your children is in danger, get out now. Don’t allow feelings of insecurity to overpower your safety. Don’t let the threats to hold you prisoner. Abuse is the antithesis of Jesus’ kingdom vision. You have your answer. Stop reading, and go now.

But most times when I’m asked about divorce, that’s not the situation. People want to know on what grounds they can get a divorce. Divorce was legal in Jesus’ day, as it is in ours. Problematically, the Torah wasn’t specific about grounds for divorce. Deuteronomy 24 just said that when there was a divorce, the ex-wife should receive a legal certificate to protect her rights. She was then free to marry someone else. As you might expect, this left the door wide open for discussion about acceptable grounds.

But in his mountain-side sermon, Jesus wasn’t addressing that question. He was teaching people how to be his kingdom. Under his kingship there should be no murder: he expects his people to manage their anger. Under his kingship, there should be no adultery: he expects his people to keep their eyes clean. Under his kingship there should be no divorce: he expects his people to make their relationships work.

Ultimately, that’s how Jesus’ kingdom will be. When every knee bows to King Jesus and every tongue acknowledges him as Lord, there will be no murder, no adultery, no divorce, no broken promises. We represent that kingdom on earth now, so he calls us to live in the present portraying the vibrant picture of life in his reign.

That’s the ideal, but there’s a problem. Not everyone submits to King Jesus now, so what if your spouse abandons you and runs off with someone else? Jesus knows it takes two to make the relationship work. If your spouse destroys the marriage, the king doesn’t blame you.

Other New Testament writers understand marriage that way as well. Paul called the Corinthians to be a living portrayal of the gospel’s power to reconcile people. But if an unbelieving partner abandons you, God doesn’t bind you to the destroyed marriage, for he calls his people to live in peace (1 Corinthians 7:15).

Divorce is always painful. Both people are bloodied when torn apart. Sometimes they don’t stop to consider the impact it has on the partner they’re rejecting, how it will affect the other person’s future life. It’s the one thing Jesus asks his people to do. If you’re the person initiating the divorce (if it’s not that your partner has already wrecked the marriage), then stop and consider what kind of future you’re condemning them to. Tough call.

Immediately prior to these verses, Jesus talked about reconciliation (5:23-26) and guarding your heart (5:27-30). Immediately after these verses, He talks about keeping your vows (5:33-37). He asks you not to wreck your marriage. But he also wants you to know that doesn’t hold you responsible if your partner has wrecked it.

Did you notice what is not in these verses? Jesus has stopped talking about punishment. Regarding anger, he spoke of punishment by a human or divine court (5:22). Regarding lust, he spoke of penalizing yourself (5:29-30). But the king doesn’t just want obedience based on fear of consequences. He wants a people who obey because they love and trust their king.

What an amazing sovereign! Jesus is committed to his people through thick and thin, for better or worse, in good times and in bad, when we’re easy or difficult to live with. His faithfulness is our lifeline. The marriage of heaven and earth depends on it.

Finding it hard to stick with your marriage? Meditate on the kindness Jesus has extended to you. Do you find inspiration in his faithful character?


What others are saying

Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 125:

The radical character of the righteousness of the kingdom demands a return to the standards of the Garden of Eden.

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 191–192:

Jesus “probably intended [this saying] to be more haggadic than halakhic; that is, its purpose was not to lay down the law but to reassert an ideal and make divorce a sin, thereby disturbing then current complacency” (Davies and Allison 1988: 532. Cf. likewise Down 1984; Molldrem 1991; Parker 1993; Hagner 1995: 551.) …

Jesus opposed divorce to protect marriage and family, thereby seeking to prevent the betrayal of innocent spouses.

John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Leicestershire: IVP, 1985), 98–99:

I have made the rule never to speak with anybody about divorce, until I have first spoken with him (or her) about two other subjects, namely marriage and reconciliation. Sometimes a discussion on these topics makes a discussion of the other unnecessary. At the very least, it is only when a person has understood and accepted God’s view of marriage and God’s call to reconciliation that a possible context has been created within which one may regretfully go on to talk about divorce.

[previous: Why the right eye?]

[next: As true as our king]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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