In Matthew 19:1-12 — one of the most controversial passages in the Bible — Jesus reveals more of God’s intent about marriage, divorce, and adultery.
Back to the Plan of Creation
Divorce was commonplace in Jesus’ day. Men and women had ignored God’s ideal plan for marriage for a long time. Even so, some realized that divorce was not morally right; consequently, there was continuous debate within religious circles on when divorce was acceptable. The controversy centered on “something indecent” in Deuteronomy 24:1.
Is it lawful to divorce for any reason? The Pharisees questioned Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” It was a loaded question. It guaranteed that almost any answer would offend someone and stir up controversy. Jesus responded to this question throughout the entire passage.
By asking “Is it lawful…” in Matthew 19:3 (in context with verse 7), the Pharisees were referring to the law of Moses. They believed that greater obedience to the law would raise one up another rung in the spiritual hierarchy. But was this the right question? Instead, purer hearts might have asked, “Is it lawful for a man to remain married to his wife when there are good reasons to divorce?” The Pharisees wanted reasons to break up a marriage; Jesus responded by emphasizing what keeps a marriage together — God’s way.
Jesus reminded the Pharisees of God’s original purpose and design for marriage from creation. He went back to the original blueprint of the Master Architect rather than argue with some of the contractors over how they built the house. People may fail in the construction of their marriages, but God’s original design for husband and wife is flawless.
“Haven’t you read,” Jesus asked the Pharisees, knowing they knew well the Creation account in Scripture, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female?'” God (actually, Jesus Himself — Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:3; Ps. 33:9) created one man (Adam) for one woman (Eve). God designed and created men and women for each other from the creation of humankind.
In verse 5, Jesus confirmed that this creation ideal is the reason anyone (without limiting this to Jews or any other group of people) leaves parents and cleaves to his or her mate in a one-flesh relationship. Anything that destroys the new family structure is contrary to God’s will. In verse 6, Jesus concluded by adding, “Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” God joins husband and wife together — not civil contracts or a sexual relationship. Spiritually they become like one person. No human being is to separate them. This is a creation law of God given before the law of Moses.
How are two persons “joined together?” Marriage is both a binding and bonding commitment between husband and wife. They make lifelong vows of fidelity, and God is a witness to these vows. He yokes them together, and those in a single yoke cannot separate themselves without removing the collar.
In context, the last part of verse 6 literally says, “and keep on not letting man separate”. This is a continuous command throughout a marriage. Can a husband and wife separate? Yes. Should they separate? No. Why? God’s will is that husband and wife remain yoked together as “one flesh.”
Did Jesus answer the question of the Pharisees? The question was: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” The answer: “The Creator made male and female so the two become one flesh. What God has joined together, let man not separate.” The Pharisees understood that Jesus had answered “no” to their first question. Man and woman leave parents and cleave to each other in a one-flesh relationship. God joins them together. That’s the sum of marriage. No exceptions. Some may seek separation; they may want to end a marriage — but that was not God’s plan.
Why did Moses permit divorce? The Pharisees heard Jesus’ response and believed they saw a contradiction with Deuteronomy 24:1-4. They immediately asked Jesus, “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
Jesus answered the Pharisees by giving them the reasoning behind Deuteronomy 24:1-4. First, Moses permitted the Israelites to divorce their wives; it was not a command as the Pharisees suggested. Nor did Moses create divorce — it was already a common practice among the Israelites. The law of Moses was really a damage control measure as divorces occurred.
Jesus told His questioners that divorce was permitted under Moses “because your hearts were hard.” Nevertheless, He quickly pointed out, “It was not this way from the beginning.” God never wanted divorce. It was not part of His plan for marriage. And, as Jesus said, this creation law still governs all humankind.
Now we come to the most controversial statement of all. Jesus said in Matthew 19:9, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Jesus restored God’s creation law rather than merely commenting on the law of Moses. He spoke of two classes of persons who commit adultery: explicitly, husbands who divorce their wives without the cause of “marital unfaithfulness” to marry other women; and implicitly, women who marry husbands who have divorced their wives for reasons other than “marital unfaithfulness.” Let’s review the meaning of the operative words.
The word “divorces” is the same term the Pharisees used in verses 3 and 7. It is the Greek word for “letting go.” Also, “marries” refers to the marriage bond between a husband and wife. These words grammatically link together and equally relate to the word “anyone”.
What does the exception for “marital unfaithfulness” mean? The only divorce that does not lead to adultery arises from “marital unfaithfulness.” Its meaning is critical to understanding Matthew 19:9.
There are differing views on whether this word modifies the word “divorces” preceding it or the word “marries” following it. But clearly Jesus is telling the world that divorce for marital unfaithfulness is the only divorce with God’s permission — not approval — that generally applies to all people from that time forward.
“Marital unfaithfulness” in Greek is porneia, meaning “fornication and all forms of illicit or unlawful sexual intercourse in general”. The proper application of this single term is the most important key to understanding verse 9. Does this term require some sexual involvement on the part of a marriage partner? Can it simply mean breaking faith with one’s partner by forsaking the marriage relationship without any sexual involvement with others? According to Greek authorities, the word has a broad sexual connotation — including unlawful heterosexual relationships, homosexuality (also sodomy and lesbianism), incest, and bestiality. It appears to require more than mere covenant breaking, marital incompatibility, or disloyalty.
Does the exception Jesus used for “marital unfaithfulness” refer only to adultery? No, Jesus did not use the specific word for “adultery” — the Greek root word moicheia. In emphasizing the purity of the marriage bond, Jesus spoke broadly against any sexual involvement with others (porneia) that breaks the sexually exclusive bond between husband and wife. He did not restrict this sin to adultery only, but rejected both it and all other forms of sexual infidelity. Jesus permits divorce whenever a spouse commits any porneia, which is not limited solely to moicheia.
How much porneia must a spouse commit before the exception applies? Is it a one-time act, or must it be a continual, unrepentant state of marital unfaithfulness? How does one know for sure if and when porneia occurs, especially since it is usually a secretive act? The word and context do not tell us. The exception could apply immediately upon any sexual infidelity. The first act could break the exclusive sexual bond between husband and wife. It may also require a continuous and unrepentant lifestyle of sexual infidelity with a hard heart before divorce occurs scripturally. There is no clear consensus on this issue. But if porneia is present and active, divorce is permitted.
How does one prove marital unfaithfulness? Under Mosaic law, witnesses must verify adulterous behavior (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 17:2-7; 19:15-21; Num. 35:30). No such biblical requirement exists today. Apart from the Bible, some civil courts struggling with legal proof of adultery in divorce cases have resolved the problem this way:
Because adultery usually takes place in secret or seclusion, proof thereof in most instances is by circumstantial evidence, through showing desire, by evidence of mutual affection or otherwise, coupled with opportunity under conditions or circumstances from which a reasonable judge of human nature would be led to conclude that adultery was committed. [Emphasis added.]
We must act wisely to arrive at an honest conclusion on this important matter. If reasonable Christians, aware of the relevant facts, believe that the circumstances (through desire and opportunity) support sexual infidelity (porneia), perhaps that is enough to fulfill the intent of verse 9.
Divorce (except for porneia) and remarriage are adultery. If there is no marital unfaithfulness (porneia), divorce and remarriage to another person while both spouses to the first marriage remain alive cause both parties to the remarriage to “commit adultery”. (The Greek root word is moikaomai, meaning “to have unlawful sexual intercourse with another’s wife; to commit adultery with”.) But does this term refer to a one-time act of adultery or a continuing state of adultery?
For example, let’s say an unscriptural divorce occurs (without porneia). One spouse remarries another person; therefore, both parties to that remarriage commit adultery. But does this adultery continue? Some believe it does not. They argue that once an adulterous marriage occurs, there is no way to undo it. At that instant, the remarriage becomes legitimate.
Alternatively, does moikaomai mean such a remarriage is a continuing state of adultery? As opposed to a one-time adulterous act, is it adultery that continues while the relationship exists? This may mean that anyone remarrying after an unscriptural divorce from a living spouse enters into a lifestyle of adultery (Col. 3:5-8).
The debate on this critical point continues. However, if a continuous state of adultery truly exists in the remarriage, who would argue against terminating this relationship? Repentance would clearly require breaking off the adulterous relationship.
Many questions arise. Does the exception Jesus made in verse 9 for marital unfaithfulness permit a divorce but not remarriage? I feel this is a very strict construction. Jesus clearly addresses a situation where divorce and remarriage have occurred, not each action as an isolated incident.
May a spouse (the “divorcee”) divorced by a mate for reasons other than porneia remarry? Verse 9 does not tell us, but Matthew 5:32 indicates that the remarriage may be adulterous. What rights does the divorcing spouse (the “divorcer”) have when porneia has occurred? When the exception does apply, Jesus does not say whether the divorcer may remarry. However, by implication, if a divorce is permissible for porneia, then the marriage is broken. It is as if a death of the unfaithful spouse has occurred.
What about the divorcee who is guilty of porneia? Does he or she give up any chance to marry again? Jesus does not say anything about this person. The one engaging in porneia commits a grievous sin in breaking the marriage bond. What are the consequences? Jesus does not mention any penalty in verse 9. Many say that the adulterer spiritually dies (as discussed earlier in this chapter). The only redemption is through repentance and forgiveness from God, but this may not allow for any remarriage. Others argue, however, that if the marriage ends in God’s judgment, why would both parties not be free to remarry another as if the marriage had never occurred?
What happens to the divorcer who remarries after an unscriptural divorce? Jesus says in verse 9 that the divorcer commits adultery. If the remarriage is a continuing state of adultery, are the parties now required to end their new marriage as part of repentance? If they divorce, can the spouses ever marry again? Must they return to their mates from their first marriages?
As you can see, many remarriage issues remain unanswered by Jesus. He does not tell us much about how a scriptural remarriage may occur after either a scriptural or unscriptural divorce. It appears that we are to answer these questions for ourselves, using the Scriptures as God leads us.
What we do know from Matthew 19:9? We know Jesus reaffirmed the marriage bond of one woman for one man in a monogamous marriage for life. Porneia is a serious breach of fidelity and trust in a marriage. If it were not, God would not permit divorce even in that exceptional circumstance. By recognizing this exception, Jesus acknowledged that the marriage bond can be broken, but He did not say that a divorce must occur after marital unfaithfulness. He only permits it. Even so, His focus throughout this conversation is not on divorce or the exception permitting divorce. He honors God’s ideal plan for marriage from creation.
The teaching that an unscriptural divorce followed by remarriage is adultery is a very hard principle to receive. It shows how important the purity and longevity of a marriage is to God.
Is it better not to be married at all? Verse 10 tells us that Jesus’ statements shocked His disciples. If this was the way God viewed divorce and remarriage, why marry at all? In saying this, did the disciples prefer easy divorces over being obedient to God’s plan for marriage? Were they so concerned about sin in marriage that they would turn their back on marriage entirely?
The disciples show how far we all fall short of God’s ideal. They missed the point. Jesus did not tell anyone to avoid marriage. His focus was always on loving God with all of one’s heart, mind, soul, and strength; that must be the priority in this life. If marriage, money, or anything else keeps one out of the kingdom of God, then it is better to part with it. We have a choice, but it is impossible for people to enter the kingdom of God on worldly resources. Only with God is everything possible.
How did Jesus respond? He did not equivocate or say that He was misunderstood. He only added: “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:11-12). He relied upon God to help them through any situation. This goes beyond the question of marriage and divorce. It is a faith problem. Will the disciples trust in God or themselves?
Who can accept this teaching? In verse 12, Jesus added: “The one who can accept this [teaching] should accept it.” Marriage is a matter of free choice; God does not coerce anyone into it. If anyone wants to marry, then he or she should accept the responsibilities of marriage. The couple should glorify God through their union as He intended from creation and honor its permanence and fidelity. Likewise, if anyone remains single, he or she should glorify God as an unmarried individual (1 Cor. 7:32-35).
Further Teachings on Divorce and Remarriage
The circumstances of Jesus’ teaching the Pharisees in Mark 10:1-12 are very similar to Matthew 19:1-12. Very likely, they are different accounts of the same meeting — with some differences, however. In Mark’s passage, Jesus speaks first of a husband as the divorcer of his wife. If that man marries another woman, he commits adultery against his wife. Then He describes the wife as the divorcer of her husband. If she marries another man, she commits adultery. Important differences from Matthew 19 are these: Mark entirely omits the exception for “marital unfaithfulness” (porneia) in Matthew 19:9; and Jesus’ teachings apply to both husbands and wives if they are the divorcers.
Since Jesus did not restate the “marital unfaithfulness” exception in Mark’s Gospel, some argue that Jesus either did not mean for the exception to apply at all, or He made a public statement to the Pharisees using the exception and another to His disciples privately without any exception, implying that different rules apply to non-believers and believers. But the missing exception in Mark does not nullify Jesus’ statement in Matthew’s version. Also, since Jesus rooted all His teachings in God’s creation plan for marriage, these apply to all people for all time without limitation to any particular group.
The second difference is of particular interest since existing Jewish law did not allow a wife to divorce her husband. The mention by Jesus of women as divorcers affirms God’s view that men and women who divorce are equally accountable to Him.
Joseph Warren Kniskern is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina with more than 32 years of experience, who has been cited in Who’s Who in American Law. This article has been excerpted with permission from When the Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide for Christians Facing Divorce (B&H Publishing Group, revised edition copyright @ 2008).