Divorce is a practice that has been around from the time of Moses until today. It has been debated and discussed for ages, and was a common practice during the earthly ministry of Jesus. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus addressed this subject in two verses.
The prevailing practice of the day is mentioned in Matthew 5:31: “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” Two leading rabbis led two schools of thought: Shammai believed divorce should be limited to physical adultery, while Hillel believed a man was allowed to divorce his wife for any good cause. Both schools of thought allowed divorce. The background for their discussions revolved around Deuteronomy 24:1-4. The question was not if divorce existed, but what were the proper grounds for divorce and remarriage.
D.A. Carson summarizes the teaching found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4: “If a man finds some uncleanness in his wife, gives her a certificate of divorce, and she then marries someone else who in time also divorces her, then the first husband cannot marry her.”
Christ said more about the subject in Matthew 19:3-9. In that section of teaching, He emphasized the importance of marriage before discussing the grounds for divorce. Divorce, Jesus indicated, is not God’s moral will or design for marriage. Moses permitted men to divorce their wives because of the hardness of their hearts.
In Matthew 5:32, Jesus gave the antithesis: “But I say to you … .” In contrast to the practice of the day, our Lord presented the so-called exception clause and repeated it again in Matthew 19:9: “Except for the cause of unchastity.” Unchastity comes from the Greek word porneia and is a more comprehensive word than adultery. Porneia has different shades of meaning involving sexual immorality, uncleanness, indecency, misconduct, indiscretion or unfaithfulness. Some translations render this word as fornication or sexual immorality. A man who divorced his wife was to be sure it was only on the grounds of unchastity — some violation of sexual morality. Even in the case of “unchastity,” divorce was not commanded or counseled, but allowed.
Divorce is not God’s design for marriage; divorce is humanity’s failure to keep God’s design. It is not, however, the unpardonable sin. Can a person be divorced, marry again, and expect the favor of God? Craig Blomberg gives an answer to that question: “Ancient Jews (like Greeks and Romans) almost universally agreed that lawful divorce granted a person the right to remarry. So Jesus’ words would almost certainly have been taken as permission for remarriage when divorce was permitted, i.e., after marital unfaithfulness.”
In Malachi 2:16, God says, “I hate divorce.” When a divorce occurs, a marriage has failed. Somewhere in the breaking up of that relationship, sin causes damage.
What can we do about divorce? Emphasize the importance of marriage as a lifelong covenant between God, a man and a woman. People will not always be happy in the marriage relationship, but that is not the primary purpose of marriage. Gary Rogers, in his book, ”Sacred Marriage,” wrote, “God designed marriage to make you holy, not happy.” It is an added blessing when we can find some happiness on the journey of holiness. Even in times of challenge, we can have joy. Divorce is allowed. Marriage that follows God’s design is blessed.