This issue of divorce and remarriage often provokes some of the most intense emotions felt by the human heart because there is no relationship more personal than that of marriage. Most of us have many relatives and close friends who have had multiple divorces and remarriages. But Jesus explicitly taught that divorce and remarriage is adultery. Nevertheless, we must remind ourselves that what Jesus taught on divorce and remarriage is good news! It is an important part of the Gospel.
Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12); “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18). Anyone or “whoever” divorces their spouse and marries another is guilty of adultery. And whoever marries a divorced person is guilty of adultery.
Luke 16:18a is almost exactly the same as Mark 10:11: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.” But Luke 16:18b introduces a new concept: “whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery.” In other words, the person who marries a divorced woman is guilty of adultery. This represents a harder teaching than Jesus’ teaching in Mark. In the case of a man who wrongfully divorced his wife and married another woman, his first wife cannot marry under penalty of adultery. Whether “innocent” or “guilty,” both spouses alike are regarded as off-limits to new marital unions.
For Jesus to describe remarriage after divorce as adultery was radically counterculture to the first-century understanding of divorce. Jesus declared that divorce did not enable remarriage. According to Jesus, legally dissolving a marriage by divorce does not actually end a marriage. The Lord said that subsequent remarriage is adulterous, which can only mean that the first marriage still stands.
Let me illustrate the teaching of Christ by example. Robert and Linda are a married couple. Robert divorces Linda and marries another woman. Under Mark 10:11, Robert is guilty of adultery. Though Robert may have obtained a legal divorce, Jesus teaches that in God’s eyes Robert is still united to Linda when he marries another woman. Under Luke 16:18b, if James marries Linda after Robert divorced her, then James would be guilty of adultery also! Conversely, if Linda divorces Robert and marries under man, she would be guilty of adultery under Mark 10:12. Neither Robert nor Linda is able to marry another person. Taken at face value, the entire teaching is quite straightforward: neither Robert nor Linda has the ability to divorce or remarry.
This issue of divorce and remarriage is such a serious one in the church because marriage is a picture of Christ and the church. Like Jesus, Paul also quoted from Genesis and said, “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). The NT frequently uses this language about Christ as the Husband and the church as the bride. Paul said to the church, “For I am jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2). To the church of Ephesus, Jesus said, “I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent” (Revelation 2:4). Jesus was calling the church to repent and come back to Him, her first love. When two people come together in their first marriage, it is holy. And it’s a picture of the church.
The Law of Moses
When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
In the Old Testament, Moses gave a law concerning divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1-4 which permitted a man to divorce his wife if he placed a certificate in her hand and sent her away. But not anymore! In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus introduced His teaching on divorce and remarriage saying, “Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you…” (Matthew 5:31-32). Thus, Jesus introduced something contrasting the Mosaic Law. When Jesus said, “But I say to you” He did not provide us with the true interpretation of Deuteronomy 24, but Jesus is changing things and giving us something different. According to Jesus and the eternal law of His kingdom, a certificate does not make divorce official or legitimate. The reason that divorce was allowed was the hardness of men’s hearts, but from the beginning it was not so.
Jesus said, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept” (Mark 10:5). For our standard, we can no longer rely on a passage in the OT which was written for the hardness of men’s hearts. The Apostle Paul explained that the Law of Moses “was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator” (Galatians 3:19). Now that Jesus has come, hard-heartedness is not an excuse. In the New Covenant, God gives you a new heart and puts a new spirit within you; He takes the heart of stone out of your flesh and gives you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). In the New Covenant, Christ’s law is written on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).
Jesus again referenced the Law of Moses when He spoke of His teaching on divorce and remarriage in Luke’s Gospel:
Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
“The law and the prophets were until John. Since that time the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is pressing into it. And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail.
“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:14-18)
The Law of Moses was until John the Baptist. Since then, something new and revolutionary was preached: the kingdom of God. And one of the primary characteristics of the kingdom of God is that divorce and remarriage is adultery. What Jesus says about divorce and remarriage is a distinctive of his kingdom. So we cannot cite the Law of Moses in order to justify a divorced and remarried couple.
Jesus was not talking about theoretical adultery when He talked about divorce and remarriage. He was talking about real adultery, just like sneaking out of your house behind your spouse’s back and sleeping with another person. Jesus is not using language which we can lightly overlook or dismiss. He is using serious words: Adultery. Jesus knew the imagery that would be in the minds of His disciples and Jewish listeners. “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14), was one of the Ten Commandments in the Law of Moses. According to Jesus, divorce and remarriage is literal adultery, a transgression of God’s eternal law, no different than a man laying with a married woman.
Nevertheless, there are hints even within the Law of Moses that marriage was permanent. For instance, there are the following regulations for the Levites: “They shall not take a wife who is a harlot or a defiled woman, nor shall they take a woman divorced from her husband; for the priest is holy to his God” (Leviticus 21:7); “And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow or a divorced woman or a defiled woman or a harlot—these he shall not marry; but he shall take a virgin of his own people as wife” (Leviticus 21:13-14). In Deuteronomy 22:13-19 is a passage which explains the situation of a man who found his newly wed wife not be a virgin. However, if the evidence of her virginity is produced, then the man will be punished for falsely accusing her and “she shall be his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days” (Deuteronomy 22:19). Also in the Law of Moses was the following command:
Suppose a man comes across a virgin who is not engaged and overpowers and rapes her and they are discovered. The man who has raped her must pay her father fifty shekels of silver and she must become his wife because he has violated her; he may never divorce her as long as he lives. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29)
Thus Moses enacted that he who had married after violence to a virgin, should not have it in his power to divorce his wife. Now, if a compulsory marriage contracted after violence is permanent, how much more shall a voluntary marriage be permanent! In all of these two cases above, divorce was not permitted for any reason, even in the Law of Moses. Therefore, we should expect that Jesus did not allow divorce for any reason when He declared, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Matthew 19:1-12 & Mark 10:1-12
Matthew 19:1-12 and Mark 10:1-12 contain the Lord’s interaction with the Pharisees on divorce and remarriage which climax with a hard saying of Jesus which shocks His disciples. We will look at these accounts together because of their similar subject matter. Later we will treat the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 and Matthew 5:32.
Though there are many similarities between the two passages, there remains minor differences: (1) In Mark 10:2, the question posed to Jesus does not contain “for just any reason” as it does in Matthew 19:3; (2) In Mark 10:3, it is Jesus who asks the Pharisees about Moses whereas Matthew 19:7 has the Pharisees asking Jesus about Moses, though both accounts have the Pharisees stating that Moses’ permitted/commanded a man to write a certificate of divorce; (3) The Lord’s hard saying occurs publicly in Matthew 19:8-9 but privately with the disciples in Mark 10:11-12; (4) His hard sayings prohibiting remarriage after divorce have important differences between the accounts, most notably is the exception clause in Matthew 19:9; (5) Matthew 19:10-12 contains the eunuch saying after the disciples response that it was better not to marry but Mark’s account omits it; (6) Mark 10:10-12 contains the disciples private meeting with Jesus in the house whereas Matthew’s account omits it.
Because of these noted differences, Mark 10:1-12 and Matthew 19:1-10 most likely represent different encounters. Jesus often repeated similar but slightly varying teachings at different times and places. For example, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is slightly different than the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20-49. We should be slow to assume that Mark omitted the exception clause if indeed the accounts in Mark 10 and Matthew 19 are separate encounters. Probably Jesus did not give the exception clause in the separate accounts recorded by Mark and Luke. In fact, many commentators believe that the exception clause is a parenthetical statement added by Matthew and does not accurately represent the Lord’s oral teaching.1 A parenthetical comment is nonetheless divinely inspired and has an intended meaning which the readers should desire to understand.
The account begins with Jesus coming to the region of Judea on the other side of the Jordan. The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” (Matthew 19:3; cf. Mark 10:2) The Pharisees wanted the Lord’s opinion concerning divorce and remarriage. Today, many teach, like the Pharisees, that Christians can get divorced “for any reason” including things like incompatibility, abandonment, financial issues, abuse, neglect, etc. In that time, there were well-known rabbinic interpretations of Deuteronomy 24. The Mishna is the first major work of Rabbinic literature and the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions. The Mishna summarizes these schools of thought regarding divorce and remarriage:
Bet Shammai say: A man may not divorce his wife unless he found her guilty of an unseemly moral matter, for it is written: “[And it will be that she does not find favor in his eyes] because he discovers an unseemly, moral matter in her [—then he should write her a bill of divorce and place it in her hand, thereby sending her away from his household]” (Deuteronomy 24:1). But Bet Hillel say: Even if she burned his food, for it is written: “Because he discovers an unseemly, moral matter in her.” [Bet Hillel reads the verse as if had been written: “Because he discovers an unseemly or moral matter in her.”] Rabbi Akiva says: Even if he found another more beautiful than her, as it is written: “And it will be that she does not find favor in his eyes.” [Rabbi Akiva reads the verse as if it had been written: “And it will be that she does not find favor in his eyes or because he discovers an unseemly, moral matter in her.”]2
Those who followed Shammai believed that divorce was only allowed for a serious moral offense, whereas those who followed Hillel believed that divorce was allowed for any reason. Hence, the Pharisees question to Jesus: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” (Matthew 19:3). Does Jesus side with Shammai or Hillel? Notice how the Lord responds to the Pharisees:
And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6; cf. Mark 10:6-9)
Quoting from Genesis 1:27; 2:24; 5:2, Jesus went all the back to Creation and used Adam and Eve as an example. When a couple unites themselves in marriage, they are no longer two but “one flesh.” What God has joined together and made “one flesh” let not man separate. On the basis that marriage is a one-flesh union, He declares that man should not separate what God has united. The Lord’s answer to the Pharisees’ question about divorce being lawful is evidently “no.” Jesus was superseding the Mosaic Law’s tolerance of divorce. What the Law of Moses merely regulated, Jesus now forbids. What Jesus said about divorce and remarriage was different than the Law of Moses, and different than the rabbinical schools of Shammai or Hillel. The disciples clearly understood that the Lord’s standard for marriage was radically higher than Hillel, Shammai or Moses. Notice the disciples reaction:
His disciples said to Him, “If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
But He said to them, “All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given: For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it.” (Matthew 19:11-12)
The Lord’s eunuch teaching was is to be understood in the context of divorce and remarriage. Based upon the reaction of His disciples, Jesus taught something very difficult to accept. If we are hearing Jesus correctly, then it is safer not to get married at all than marry and risk divorce. Jesus taught on celibacy as a response to the disciples’ reaction. A single or virgin disciple of Jesus may have to forego marriage altogether. A disciple of Jesus must become celibate and remain unmarried if his or her spouse deserts them. If in an adulterous remarriage, a disciple of Jesus must separate and become celibate or be reconciled to their first spouse.
This eunuch saying should not be understood in the sense that some of Jesus’ disciples are gifted eunuchs and some aren’t. When it comes to marriage, a disciple of Christ must be content with one marriage or become a eunuch. This saying is a direct response to the disciples reaction to His divorce and remarriage teaching, not a general teaching on the gift of celibacy. The phrase, “He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” does not mean some disciples can accept it and others can’t. It was the Pharisees who couldn’t accept it because of the harness of hearts. But for a disciple of Jesus, it isn’t an option. Similarly, Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables” (Mark 4:11).
Later in the house His disciples asked Him again about divorce and remarriage. They wanted to be sure they were understanding Him correctly about marriage being indissoluble.
In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same matter. So He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:10-12)
The Exception Clause
Does Jesus allow divorce for limited exceptions? Most of the various understandings of divorce and remarriage seem to focus on different interpretations of the exception clause, found in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. First, consider Matthew 5:31-32 found in the Sermon on the Mount:
It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32, KJV)
Matthew 19:9 is the other passage which contains the exception clause. Jesus said,
And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. (Matthew 19:9, KJV)
To what was Jesus referring in this exception clause? It is only if this text is read in isolation that one could conclude that a man may divorce his adulterous wife and lawfully marry another. However, in consideration of all the other passages where Jesus spoke on this issue (plus the surrounding context of Matthew 19:9), we cannot conclude that this is the case for the man with an adulterous wife. If Matthew 19:9 is granting permission for a man to remarry in the event of his wife’s unfaithfulness, then the Lord’s statements about divorce and remarriage in the gospels of Mark and Luke are false. In Mark 10:11-12 and Luke 16:18, Jesus made no mention of this exception. In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Paul explicitly cited the Lord’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, yet said nothing about this exception. Elsewhere Paul made it clear that the only means of being loosed from the bond of marriage is the death of either spouse (1 Corinthians 7:39; Romans 7:2-3).
Why would Mark, Luke and Paul omit such an important detail if there really were an exception for divorce and remarriage? There are some people groups nowadays and in history who have only possessed the Gospel of Mark or the Gospel of Luke. For them, we must acknowledge that they do not have the complete truth about divorce and remarriage if Matthew’s gospel really does teach that a man may divorce and remarry for sexual immorality. In the first century, bound Bibles did not even exist. It seems unreasonable to assume that Mark and Luke would presume that their gospels should be read through the lens of Matthew’s exception clause. Or that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians should be read through the lens of Matthew’s exception clause. These texts should be able to stand on their own and be understood without contradictions. These considerations imply that the exception clause pertains to an unusual circumstance, so rare that Mark and Luke didn’t even think it needful to mention to their Gentile audience.
Probably the most common interpretation of the exception clause among Protestant Evangelicals is that Jesus is granting permission for an innocent spouse to divorce and remarry in cases of marital unfaithfulness. In other words, “except for fornication” is understood to mean that an act of sexual immorality makes an exception to the general rule that putting away your wife and marrying another is adultery. However, such an interpretation makes the sin of adultery worse than any other sin, including murder, because “except for fornication” was the only exception Jesus made. And Jesus didn’t use the word “adultery” in the exception clause, but the word “fornication.”
It is important for us to consider the practical results of treating adultery as grounds for divorce and remarriage. The main problem with this interpretation of the exception clause is that it contradicts the plain meaning of every other passage on divorce and remarriage in the New Testament: Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:3; 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 39.
There are also logical conflicts that arise if Matthew 19:9 grants permission for a man to divorce his first and legitimate wife because of her sexual immorality and marry another woman. If a married woman divorces her husband to be married to another man, then she is committing adultery by any reading of the Gospels. But if her former husband uses her adultery as an exception for remarrying, then how is the former wife still committing adultery against him if he is free to remarry? In other words, the two are either both still married to each other, or both no longer married to each other. She can only be committing adultery if she is still married to him; and she can only be married to him if he is married to her. Her second marriage can only be considered adultery if she is still actually married to her first husband. And if she is still married to him, then he is not free to remarry. If her adultery makes him free to remarry, then she is also free to remarry upon the grounds of her own adultery.
If adultery is truly an exception for divorce and remarriage, then we must make the irrational conclusion that remarriage is adulterous for the guilty party, but not for the “innocent” party. But if remarriage is not adulterous for the “innocent” spouse, then remarriage cannot be adulterous for the guilty spouse either. The two are either both still married to each other, or both no longer married to each other. The guilty spouse can only be committing adultery if they are still married to their former spouse. But for those who make the exception of adultery for divorce and remarriage, subsequent marriages cease to be adulterous because of the guilty spouse’s original adultery. If that be the case, then Christ’s words are meaningless.
Not only does that interpretation contradict the plain meaning of every other passage on divorce and remarriage in the New Testament, but it also inconsistent with the surrounding context of Matthew 19:3-12. Let me explain.
First, the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason (Matthew 19:3). Jesus responded and gave no reason to ever divorce. Jesus appealed to the account of Creation to support the permanency view of marriage: “Male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27); “He created them male and female” (Genesis 5:2). Again, Jesus quoted the Creation account and said that it is for this reason that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Jesus concluded: “So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). That was His original answer to the Pharisees question about whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. In short, there are no lawful reasons to divorce because the two are one flesh.
Secondly, the Pharisees asked Jesus, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” (Matthew 19:7). Once again, Jesus re-affirmed the permanency of marriage: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). The verse that follows is the exception clause. Is Jesus going to backpedal now and say that actually adultery can separate the two that God has joined together as one flesh? Is Jesus also going to make a concession for the hardness of men’s hearts and allow divorce like Moses? Is Jesus going to tell us that from the beginning it was not so, but now it is so that you are allowed to divorce for adultery?
Thirdly, the response of the disciples was that it was better not to marry based on what Jesus had said (Matthew 19:10). If Jesus was allowing divorce and remarriage for the cause of adultery, this would mean that His disciples were shocked by the idea of marrying a woman they could not divorce for any other reason except adultery. It is highly unlikely that the Lord’s disciples would have such a low view of marriage that they would be disturbed by a perspective which was actually commonly held amongst many Jews already.
Fourth, Jesus taught on celibacy as a response to the apostles’ reaction (Matthew 19:11-12). In other words, celibacy is the only alternative to the Lord’s teaching on marriage. He concluded, “He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:12). It is not credible to understand that Jesus was saying some of His disciples were able to accept this eunuch saying and others were unable to accept it. If this were the case, the eunuch saying would have been a clear teaching from the Lord concerning virgins, but Paul the Apostle knew of no such teaching when he wrote the Corinthians: “Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 7:25). Therefore, the eunuch saying must be understood in the context of the Lord’s teaching on the permanency of marriage. A single or virgin disciple of Jesus may have to forego marriage altogether. A disciple of Jesus must become celibate and remain unmarried if his spouse deserts him. If in an adulterous remarriage, a disciple of Jesus must separate himself and become celibate or be reconciled to his first spouse.
Thus, even from the surrounding context of Matthew 19:1-12, it cannot be argued that Jesus is making an exception for divorce and remarriage.
Moreover, the Lord’s own disciples later asked Him about the same matter again in private. As Jesus exited the public eye from His discussion with the Pharisees, His disciples asked Him further about what He meant in His teaching on divorce and remarriage. In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same matter. So He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:10-12).
Most importantly, all of the other relevant passages in the NT do not make any sort of allowance for remarriage when the first spouse is still alive. In his epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote,
Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
Paul was reiterating the Lord’s command from Matthew’s Gospel and says to remain unmarried or reconcile. This should end all arguments about what Jesus meant in Matthew 19.
Finally, if Jesus was merely siding with the rabbinical school of Shammai, the disciples’ shock is totally unwarranted. If Jesus were agreeing to a commonly held rabbinical school of thought, then why would the disciples say it is better not to marry? Why would Jesus teach on celibacy if he were making an allowance for divorce like that of Shammai?
Though there have been varying interpretations of the exception clause throughout church history, it was not until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that the professing church allowed remarriage for adultery. Compared to most Protestant Bible translations, two leading Roman Catholic Bibles offer quite different translations of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9:
But I say this to you, everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of an illicit marriage, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32, NJB)
But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32, NABRE)
Now I say this to you: anyone who divorces his wife — I am not speaking of an illicit marriage — and marries another, is guilty of adultery.’ (Matthew 19:9, NJB)
I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9, NABRE)
The Roman Catholic interpretation does not force Matthew to contradict the plain, absolute meaning of Matthew 19:3-8, Mark 10:11-12:, Luke 16:18, Romans 7:1-3, and 1 Corinthians 7:39. But there is a better interpretation of the exception clause.
The Betrothal View
If we understand that Matthew’s exception clause is referring to a betrothal, we also have an explanation for why Mark, Luke, and Paul do not mention the exception. This interpretation is based on the translation of fornication, the Greek word πορνεία (porneia), as referring to pre-marital sex, distinct from adultery.
The word “adultery” or μοιχεία (moicheuō) specifically describes sexual immorality involving at least one married person. The Greek verb μοιχάω (moichaō) or “commits adultery” is defined as to have unlawful intercourse with another’s wife, to commit adultery with. This word is used strictly in the NT passages in which Jesus teaches on divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11,12). The Greek word μοιχεύω (moicheuō), also translated “commits adultery”, is another verb used to speak of divorce and remarriage as adultery in Luke 16:18. The Greek word μοιχεύω (moicheuō) is a parallel to the Hebrew wordנָאַף (na’aph) because Jesus and the apostles use the word when quoting Seventh Commandment of the Decalogue (see Matthew 5:27; 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20; Romans 2:22; 13:9; James 2:11).
In the NT, fornication is often distinguished from adultery, being listed together in the same passages as separate sins. For instance, Paul the Apostle said, “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery [moicheia], fornication [porneia] . . .” (Galatians 5:19-21). The only other passage besides the exception clause texts of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 where Matthew uses the word πορνεία (porneia) is 15:19-20: “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries [moicheia], fornications [porneia], thefts, false witness, blasphemies (Matthew 15:19; cf. Mark 7:21).” Therefore, the contextual evidence for Matthew’s usage of the word πορνεία (porneia) is that he conceives it as something different than adultery.
Likewise, in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, there is a distinction between the words. Look at the following passages:
And her fornication (porneia) was nothing accounted of; and she committed adultery (moicheuō) with wood and stone (Jeremias 3:9, LXX).
I also will expose thy skirts upon thy face, and thy shame shall be seen; thine adultery (moicheia) also, and thy neighing, and the looseness of thy fornication (porneia): on the hills and in the fields I have seen thine abominations. Woe to thee, O Jerusalem, for thou hast not been purified so as to follow me; how long yet shall it be? (Jeremias 13:26-27, LXX)
Plead with your mother, plead: for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband: and I will remove her fornication (porneia) out of my presence, and her adultery (moicheia) from between her breasts. (Osee 2:2, LXX)
Thus, the two words πορνεία (porneia) and μοιχεία (moicheuō) are not interchangeable. Similarly, fornicators and adulterers are listed together in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Hebrews 13:4 to make a distinction between the two. If Jesus was referring to a pre-marital sin of sexual immorality, it would explain why He used the word “fornication” rather than “adultery” in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.
In addition to these two words having different meanings, the fact that Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience is essential. There are also many internal evidences within Matthew’s Gospel which demonstrate the he was writing for a Jewish audience. For one, Matthew began his Gospel with the Lord’s genealogy, which would have been of very little interest to Gentile readers. Secondly, he focuses on the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy with more Old Testament quotations than any other Gospel writer. Third, Matthew gathered the Lord’s teachings into five discourses, which may have been a conscious effort to echo the five books of Moses in the Jewish Torah. Fourth, Matthew does not explain Jewish culture like the other Gospel writers (cf. Mark 7:3-4, John 19:40). Fifth, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” is a term appropriate to a Jewish audience because Jewish readers were cautious to use the word “God” to be sure not to blaspheme or take the Lord’s name in vain.
In addition to the internal evidence, the early Christians attest to the fact that Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish audience. Of the Gospel of Matthew, Papias had the following to say: “Matthew compiled the sayings [logia of Christ] in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.”3 This historical fact that the Gospel of Matthew was “written for the Jews” is also affirmed by Irenaeus and Origen.4
In Jewish culture, a betrothal or engagement was regarded as a marriage covenant, though the marriage had not yet been consummated. Notice how the KJV translates Deuteronomy 20:7, “And what man is there that hath betrothed a wife, and hath not taken her? let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man take her.” Though the word may also be translated “female”or “woman”, the translators thought it fitting to render אִשָּׁה (ishshah) as “wife” even though the passage is speaking of a betrothal.5
Another reference in support the dual usages of “husband” and “wife” is in Deuteronomy 22:23-24:
If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbor’s wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24, KJV).
Above, we see a virgin who is considered as a “wife” betrothed to a “husband.” Also, a man who raped a betrothed woman had a more severe punishment than a man who raped a woman who was not betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:25-29). The man who raped a betrothed woman was sentenced to death (Deuteronomy 22:25), but a man who raped a virgin who was not betrothed is commanded to pay her father the bridal price, be her husband and “not put her away all his days” (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Clearly the Jewish betrothal custom was a much more serious commitment than engagement today.
This custom of betrothal was common Jewish practice even in the NT. The Greek word γυνή (gynē) can refer to a wife, a betrothed woman, a woman of any age, whether a virgin, or married, or a widow. However, out of the 50 Bible translations that I consulted, every single one of them translated gynē as “wife” in Matthew 1:20 which contains a reference to Joseph and Mary’s betrothal. In other words, based upon the context the word gynē is understood to be referring to Mary as Joseph’s wife, even though the betrothed couple had not yet consummated their marriage. Likewise, in an overwhelming majority of the same 50 Bible translations of Matthew 1:19, the Greek word ἀνήρ (anēr) is translated “husband” with reference to Joseph, Mary’s betrothed husband. Similarly, the word anēr may broadly refer to any male, but based upon the context of Matthew’s Gospel and the Jewish custom of betrothal, the word has been translated “husband.” Matthew said in his gospel:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18-20, emphasis mine)
The same is true in Luke’s Gospel speaking of Mary as Joseph’s betrothed “wife.” Luke records:
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. (Luke 1:4-5, emphasis mine)
In both the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Joseph and Mary are referred to as being husband and wife even though they are only betrothed to each other. Matthew says that Joseph was a “just” man in making the decision to divorce Mary, presumably on account of her fornication. During their betrothal period, “Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.” (Matthew 1:19). The Greek verb ἀπολύω (apolyō) is here translated “to put away.” In Matthew’s Gospel, the same exact word is used in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 with reference to divorce and remarriage and the exception clause:
Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces [apolyō] his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces [apolyō] his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced [apolyō] commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31,32)
He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce [apolyō] your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces [apolyō] his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced [apolyō] commits adultery. (Matthew 19:,8,9)
Thus, in Matthew’s Gospel, the verb apolyō is used to describe a divorce, whether it be that of a married couple or that of a betrothed couple like the case Joseph and Mary. Keep in mind that Matthew’s Gospel is the only gospel containing the account of Joseph being minded to “put away” his betrothed wife Mary. It is therefore very reasonable to assume that the exception clause (also only contained in Matthew’s Gospel) refers to the unique case of a man “putting away” his betrothed “wife” for the exception of fornication, namely pre-marital sex. As Matthew constructed the narrative of his gospel, he finds himself in chapters 5 and 19 needing to prohibit all divorce and remarriage (as Jesus taught) and yet to allow for “divorces” like the one Joseph contemplated with his betrothed wife whom he suspected was guilty of fornication. Matthew in particular includes the exception clause to absolve Joseph, a truly “just” man. In sum, the kind of “divorce” Joseph pursued during a betrothal on account of fornication is not included in the Lord’s absolute prohibition of remarriage.
If fornication refers to premarital promiscuity, then the Synoptic Gospels are in full agreement. Nothing arising after marriage can justify divorce and therefore all remarriages after divorce are adulterous as stated in Mark/Luke. This interpretation does not force Matthew to contradict the plain, absolute meaning of Matthew 19:3-8, Mark 1011-12:, Luke 16:18, Romans 7:1-3, and 1 Corinthians 7:39. This interpretation also provides an explanation for why the word porneia (fornication) is used in Matthew’s exception clause instead of moicheia (adultery). By the way, in John 8:41, the Jewish leaders indirectly accused Jesus of being born of fornication. Then they said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God” (John 8:41). They assumed that Jesus was born as the result of Mary committing fornication rather than being virgin born.
Did Paul Make An Exception?
Paul received his gospel directly from the Lord Jesus (Galatians 1:12), consequently he was in full agreement with Jesus that divorce was forbidden. It’s therefore important that we read Paul’s letters through the lens of what Jesus taught in the Gospels. There are many erroneous interpretations to 1 Corinthians 7 which imply that the Apostle Paul made allowances for divorce that Jesus never made, and that he permitted remarriage after divorce. It is a dangerous and irresponsible assumption to use a more ambiguous passage in Scripture such as 1 Corinthians 7 to contradict all of the more explicit statements made elsewhere in the New Testament.
Moreover, a careful reading of 1 Corinthians 7 with regard to its context is completely harmonious with the teaching of Christ on divorce and remarriage. The so-called “Pauline Privilege” is found in 1 Corinthians 7:15-16, the most exhaustive treatment of marriage in the within the NT epistles. The chapter begins with Paul addressing marriage related questions that the Church at Corinth had previously wrote him (1 Corinthians 7:1-7). For our present study, we will begin with verses 8-9.
But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)
First, Paul addressed “the unmarried” and “the widows.” A widow is a woman who has lost her husband in death without remarrying. The unmarried refers to widowers. The noun αγαμοις (agamos) for “unmarried” is in the plural masculine form. It makes sense that Paul is addressing widowers and widows together. Paul is not here addressing those who have never been married because in 1 Corinthians 7:25-35, Paul devotes a lengthy section to virgins who have never been married. “The unmarried” cannot refer to all single people, including divorced people, because this would clearly contradict Paul’s later statements (1 Corinthians 7:11, 39) as well as the Lord’s teaching on divorce and remarriage. The divorced are not eligible for marriage. By context and deduction, “the unmarried” in 1 Corinthians 7:8 must be widowers. Remarriage is not advised but it is a viable option for those who have lost a spouse through death. Paul continues:
Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
In this section, Paul is addressing those who are married. Notice he is repeating the command from the Lord Jesus: “I command, yet not I but the Lord.” He gives neither spouse permission to depart. But if the wife departs she must remain unmarried or be reconciled. The Greek word χωρίζω (chōrizō) for “depart” is the same word translated “put asunder” when Jesus said, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6, c.f. Mark 10:9). It is accurately defined by Thayer’s Greek Lexicon: “to leave a husband or wife: of divorce.” But if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. Why? Because Jesus said, “And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:12), and, “whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9). And a husband is not to divorce his wife.
But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:12-16)
Written to “the rest” or unequally yoked marriages, Paul addresses Christians who are married to an unbelieving spouse. Jesus did not address this group of people, thus Paul says, “I, not the Lord, say.” Why did Paul have to address them separately? These Corinthians were no doubt struggling with living with an unbelieving spouse. In the OT book of Ezra chapter 9 the Hebrews were commanded to put away their unequally yoked marriages with pagans. Perhaps the Corinthians had this in mind when they first wrote Paul. But Paul tells the Christian spouses not to divorce. Unlike the OT example, Paul is commanding those in unequally yoked marriages to remain with their pagan spouse. This actually affirms the Lord’s teaching on marriage that God has joined the two together and they are “one flesh” regardless of whether or not they are Christians. Even though these disciples in Corinth were married to pagans, their marriage was still valid in the eyes of God.
In many cases, the unequally yoked brother or sister is going to experience some disdain, ridicule, hostility, persecution or even divorce for their faith. Paul encourages them to bear it and be a testimony to their unbelieving spouse. Christians are not to divorce their unbelieving spouse so long as the unbeliever is willing to dwell with them. If an unbelieving partner took the initiative to get a divorce from a Christian spouse, then the Christian must stay single in hope that the unbelieving partner would be reconciled, even if the unbeliever remarried in the meantime.
What is meant by “not under bondage”? The Christian spouse is not bound to follow after the unbeliever if they leave. The brother or sister is not bound by their Christian convictions to save a marriage which is out of their own control. The Christian spouse is not responsible for the actions of the unbelieving spouse. The believer is not obligated to chase after them and force the marital relationship upon them. They are not bound to fulfill marital duties which their unbelieving spouse has made impossible to perform. In all of these ways, the Christian is not under bondage; let the unbeliever depart in peace. Nevertheless, remarriage is not permissible. Perhaps the unbelieving spouse will repent and return. However, nothing Paul says here is a clear basis for assuming that the unbeliever’s departure ends the bond of marriage. It is dangerous and irresponsible to use a more ambiguous passage in Scripture to contradict all of the more explicit statements made elsewhere in the New Testament. He continues:
But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches. Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called. (1 Corinthians 7:17-24)
This section is linked to the previous section about unequally yoked marriages. The overall context of remaining in the calling in which he was called has to do with marriage though Paul also brings up circumcision and slavery. If a Christian was converted while married to an unbeliever, they are to remain in that calling regardless of whether or not the unbeliever is content to dwell with the Christian. If a separation does occur, Paul expresses hope of reconciliation and abiding in the calling wherein you are called, but never does he encourage divorce or allow remarriage. Neither would he be encouraging a person to remain in an unlawful marriage, contrary to the teaching of the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:25-38 deal with virgins who are engaged to be married; those who have never been married before. (I will not quote it in full here because of its length, but you may read it in your Bible). Paul’s comments are his own because Jesus did not mention their situation in any of the Gospel accounts. Many professing Christians interpret 1 Corinthians 7:27-28 as permitting divorce and remarriage. They say the “loosed” refers to the divorced, and thus arrive at the false conclusion that if the divorced marry, they “have not sinned.” But the overall context of this segment of instruction in verses 25-35 is “concerning virgins.” It is therefore reasonable to assume that “bound” and “loosed” refers to betrothal of virgins.
In verses 1 Corinthians 7:36-38, Paul is advising fathers who have unmarried daughters, Paul says the father who does not give his daughter in marriage does better than the father who gives his daughter in marriage. In his closing thoughts, Paul reiterates that marriage endures until death:
A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. But she is happier if she remains as she is, according to my judgment—and I think I also have the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 7:39-40)
A woman is free to remarry another Christian man, only if her husband dies. There is no ambiguity and no exceptions to this rule. There is on final passage of importance for our study on divorce and remarriage. Paul wrote to the church at Rome:
Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man. Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter. (Romans 7:1-6)
To illustrate the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New Covenant, Paul presents this analogy about marriage. In order for a woman to be lawfully married to a second husband, the first husband must be dead. A marital covenant is similar in nature to the Old and New covenants. Death and remarriage symbolizes the relationship of God’s people to the Law of Moses and subsequently to Christ. The first husband represents the Law or the Old Covenant. A death had to occur in order to establish a legitimate new marriage covenant. Through Christ’s death, we have become dead to the Law of Moses. Only then can we be married to a second husband, even Jesus, in the the New Covenant. According to Paul’s illustration, we have been delivered and freed from the Mosaic Law like a woman has been freed to marry a second husband upon the death of her first husband. Thus, the headship and legal claims of the Law of Moses have been severed like that of a deceased husband. In so many words, we are not obligated to keep the Old Testament Law but Christ is our new Head. So those who would seek to keep the Mosaic Law can be likened to a woman who is trying to please a dead husband.
Consistent with the Lord’s teaching on divorce and remarriage in the gospels, Paul notes in Romans 7:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 that only death terminates the marriage relationship. Jesus also implied the same fact when He said, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven” (Matthew 22:30). God’s standard is consistent. Divorce doesn’t end marriage. Death does.
It is the more ambiguous and questionable passages that are used to make a case for divorce and remarriage not being adultery. But all of the NT passages concerning divorce and remarriage can be legitimately harmonized according to the absolute indissolubility of marriage as taught by the Lord in the gospels. Thus we ought to humbly and responsibly approach the more ambiguous texts which are argued to make exceptions for divorce and remarriage. Therefore, as explained above, the exception clause in Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:8-9 must refer to the unique situation of betrothal.
By way of summary, Jesus taught that marriage was absolutely indissoluble (Matthew 19:4-6; Mark 10:5-9) and that remarriage while the spouse lives is impossible (Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18). Far from there being any “Pauline exception”, the indissolubility of marriage and adultery of remarriage is also affirmed by the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:1-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, 39. Divorce doesn’t end marriage; death does.
Jesus and His apostles taught that divorce and remarriage is adultery. If all people knew that remarriage wasn’t an option, they would be much less inclined to divorce and remarry and much more inclined to reconcile with their spouse.
1 See Matthew 24:15 for an undisputed parenthetical addition.
2 Mishna, Gitten 9:10, available online: http://www.emishnah.com/Nashim_Vol_2/Gittin9.pdf
3 Eusebius, The Church History, tr. Paul L. Maier (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999), 114.
4 “For Matthew, writing for the Hebrews who looked for Him who was to come of the line of Abraham and of David, says: ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham’” (Origen, ANF, 9.299); “And we will begin with Matthew, who is reported by tradition to have published his Gospel before the others, to the Hebrews, those, namely, of the circumcision who believed” (Origen, ANF, 9.366); “The Gospel according to Matthew was written to the Jews. For they laid particular stress upon the fact that Christ should be of the seed of David. Matthew also, who had a still greater desire to establish this point, took particular pains to afford them convincing proof that Christ is of the seed of David; and therefore he commences with an account of His genealogy” (Irenaeus, ANF, 1.573).
5 “Wife” is also the translation in the ASV, ESV, JUB, RSV, WEB, and WYC.