The Code of Righteousness: Marriage

The Pharisees’ teaching on adultery had severely weakened God’s will regarding the love and commitment which should exist between husband and wife. For them, the only sin to avoid was adultery. Jesus reset the bar to where God intended it to be: love and commitment in marriage prompts one to cleanse the heart of lust (vss. 27-30). Sadly, poor teaching on adultery was not the only way the Pharisees had perverted God’s will for marriage, for they also ignored the Lord’s teaching on the permanence of the marriage covenant. Jesus’ teaching on marriage will again show that the righteousness of the Kingdom “surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,” (vs. 20).

31 “It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; 32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 5.31-32)

Righteousness of the Pharisees: Divorce So Long As You Follow The Right Procedures (vs. 31)

What the people “heard” from the Pharisees was a teaching based on Deuteronomy 24.1-4. They taught that this passage gave a husband the right to divorce his wife, so long as there was some “indecency” in her. Various rabbis argued over what this indecency was and over how tight were the bonds of marriage. “The school of Shammai took a hard line and saw the meaning of ‘some indecency’ (Deut. 24:1) as adultery, whereas the school of Hillel allowed a much wider range of interpretation, and, for example, permitted a man to divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner… Rabbi Akiba allowed divorce ‘Even if he found another fairer than she.” (Leon Morris). It is clear from passages like Matthew 19.3 that most of the Pharisees favored, and taught, divorce for any reason.

They were wrong on all counts. First, they were wrong because they misread Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 24.1-4. Moses did not command them to divorce their wives. Rather, he gave what is called “contingency legislation” (notice the “if” – “then” construction of Deut. 24.1-4) meant to check the spread of divorce. The passage should have given pause to anyone seeking to put away his wife since it may mean that he could never again take her as his companion. The Pharisees had missed the point entirely! Second, in their haste to find legal justification for divorce, they ignored God’s plain teaching emphasizing the permanence of marriage. Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and on other occasions, is rooted in God’s eternal will regarding marriage.

Righteousness of the Kingdom: Marriage Matters! (vs. 32)

In one verse Jesus reveals the terribleness and sinfulness of divorce for any cause. In the words of Paul Earnhart, “such a divorce is wrong on three counts. It is wrong because it shows no love for the mate. It is wrong because it could push the divorced mate into a damning relationship. And it is wrong because it could involve another otherwise innocent person in adultery.” Jesus gives one lawful reason for divorce, “unchastity” (NASB) or “sexual immorality” (ESV), because such unfaithfulness would have broken the marriage covenant already. However, even then Jesus did not command the wronged spouse to divorce the unfaithful partner. “even in cases where fornication has occurred the redemptive love of the kingdom would seem to counsel mercy and reconciliation where possible . Divorce was never a commandment. Love is.” (PE)

We must not miss Jesus’ point in this verse. He is not simply laying out the sinful consequences of divorce; He is showing just how sinful a divorce is both in the action and the attitudes behind the action. “In God’s Word, marriage and love are for the tough-minded. Marriage is commitment; and, far from backing out when the going gets rough, marriage partners are to sort out their difficulties in the light of Scripture. They are to hang in there, improving their relationship, working away at it, precisely because they have vowed before God and man to live together and love each other for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness as in health, until death separates them.” (D.A. Carson). The Pharisees’ teaching on divorce did not encourage reconciliation; it did not demand commitment. In short, it was the opposite of love.

Jesus’ teaching on this issue, whether here or in other passages (cf. Matthew 19.4-9; Mark 10.11-2; Luke 16.18), should not have sounded nearly as revolutionary as it did in His day… or in ours. What Jesus emphasizes, real love and true commitment, has always been the will of God in marriage. The “one flesh” principle in Genesis 2.24 is the embodiment of love and commitment. As we’ve already noted, Deuteronomy 24.1-4 was meant to curb divorce rather than encourage it. And God’s hatred of divorce is made plain in Malachi 2.14-16. The treachery of divorce is that it shows no love, honors no commitment.

Why does marriage matter so much to God? Because His relationship to His people is described as a marriage (see Ezekiel 16.8-14; Isaiah 54.5; Ephesians 5.22-30; 2Corinthians 11.2). And what God expects of us in this relationship is real love (Matthew 22.37-40) and true commitment (Mark 9.23; Revelation 2.10). And those are the exact things we want from our God! We want God to view our covenant as permanent; we want Him to keep loving us and remain committed. Thus, we should honor our marriages in the same way He honors His covenant.

2 thoughts on “The Code of Righteousness: Marriage

Add yours

  1. Great word clearly outlined.

    But what do you say, to a woman who clearly has been neglected (when she was ill), abused, and cheated by her husband severally with other women. Finally got one of the women pregnant and married her customarily. Now he has moved out to live with the other woman, claiming that his wife would not accept the second wife. What should this woman do in this situation?


    1. Thanks for reading and for the good question! Jesus deals with this issue in passages like Matthew 19.9. This man has broken his marriage covenant, so the woman is free to divorce him and remarry.


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