SermonOnTheMountEditor’s note: The purpose of this series is to walk our readers through the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 in order to help them understand what it teaches and how to apply it to our lives. This is our first such series here at Servants of Grace through an extended biblical passage and is part of our larger commitment to help Christians learn to read, interpret, reflect, and apply the Bible to their own lives.

Divorce: A Consequence of Lust and Discontent

If lust begins with a wandering eye, divorce begins with a wandering mind. Lust can start with sexual dissatisfaction. Divorce can begin as marital dissatisfaction. It may begin with a discontented thought: “My spouse is not so interesting, not so attractive, not so interested in pleasing me these days.” Today, wherever no-fault divorce is the law, mere dissatisfaction is a sufficient legal basis for a divorce. In Jesus’ day, women had few rights, but men could get a divorce as easily as today.

In our passage Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus prohibits cavalier divorce. According to Jewish tradition, a man could legally divorce his wife if he simply gave her a certificate that declared her a free woman. Jesus rightly notes, “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce’ ” (Matt. 5:31). Conservative rabbis said a woman had to do something shameful before a husband could divorce her. But others said that a man could obtain a divorce for any reason at all. Some rabbis judged it a sufficient cause for divorce if a woman spoiled her husband’s food or even if he “found another fairer than she.” The book of Ecclesiasticus, found in the Apocrypha and dated to roughly 150 b.c., says, “If she will not do as you tell her, get rid of her” (25:26).

Jesus calls cavalier divorce “adultery” in Matthew 5:31–32. Further, He says that such divorce can drive the divorced woman into adultery: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” This is not the place for a full discussion of divorce, but we will make a few observations about Scripture and the contemporary scene.

Scripture, Divorce, and the Contemporary Scene

The biblical regulation of divorce began with Moses at a time when hard-hearted men divorced their wives all too easily. Because their hearts were hard, they were not ready to hear God’s plan for lifelong fidelity. So Moses did not insist on God’s perfect standard, but permitted men to divorce their wives for significant offenses, provided that they gave their wives a certificate that freed them to marry another man. If she did remarry, her first husband could never touch her again (Deut. 24:1–4).

This legislation accomplished two things. First, it protected divorced women by giving them a clear right to remarry. Second, it slowed men down, for it forced them to think twice before acting. If a man divorced his wife and she remarried, he could never regain her. Thus, Moses’ law permitted divorce, but also restricted it.

Jesus effectively says that such laws had their purposes, but that lifelong faithfulness is the goal, except in the case of adultery. Scripture elsewhere makes it clear that desertion is a legitimate ground for divorce, and a strong case can be made that physical violence is as well. Jesus says that those who divorce simply because they are tired of their spouse are guilty of adultery.

In Jesus’ day, the rabbis debated how readily a man gained the right to divorce his wife. Today, people wonder how fast they can get a divorce and still be considered respectable. But later, in Matthew 19, Jesus says that our standard should be God’s plan for marriage, not social respectability. There He cites Genesis 1 and 2, which present three principles. First, God has blessed marriage from the beginning, when he created one man and one woman and married them (Genesis 1:27–28; Genesis 2:18–25). Second, marriage was Adam and Eve’s central human relationship. They were married before they were parents and stayed married after their children matured. Marriage is stronger and more enduring than the bond between parent and child: “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife” (Genesis 2:24). Third, the union of their hearts, with God as their witness, leads a man and a woman to become “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).

“One flesh” certainly includes physical intimacy, but it is broader than that. It means hearing both the words and the silences of the beloved. It means dreaming great dreams, but also cleaning up the kitchen. It means sharing the deep concerns of the heart and the little bumps on the toe.

Jesus says that only the radical betrayal of adultery can sever all this. Is that because adultery is so much worse than other sins? Not necessarily. But physical adultery usually occurs after much mental adultery. To commit adultery, one must think it, plan it, and persuade oneself that it is justified. The adulterer must decide that his spouse no longer deserves his loyalty. To act on this thought is a profound betrayal of the essence of marriage, which is the pledge of exclusive, lifelong faithfulness. That is why lust leads to adultery, and adultery leads to divorce.

The Word of Grace

The greatest source of healing in a marriage is the grace of God poured into our hearts. That grace has two facets. First, God is patient and faithful toward us, despite our sins and flaws. As we behold our Lord and live in union with him, we participate more and more in His character. Then we grow into His patience and faithfulness.

Second, God graciously forgives our sins and flaws. Drinking deep at the fountain of His mercy, we have mercy for others. Some days our spouse’s failures loom large. Sometimes the virtues of a friendly and attractive person of the opposite sex loom even larger. Just as we cannot control our angry hearts, so we cannot repeal the heart’s tendency to become discontent, to wish for a better spouse.

What then? Remember God’s grace and providence. The Church is the bride of Christ, and we are hardly the perfect spouse to him. Yet God tells us,

I will betroth you to me forever;

I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,

in love and compassion.

I will betroth you in faithfulness,

and you will acknowledge the Lord. (Hos. 2:19–20)

So God’s faithfulness inspires us. More than that, the Lord gives grace to forgive our sins and to make us new. By His grace, He can build a strong marriage, with all the faithfulness and contentment that two sinners can know.