“It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.’ 32 But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Note: any Bible reference containing only a chapter number and verse number is understood to be in the Gospel of Matthew.
Headline: “An Exception Has Swallowed the Rule”
In the engineering of systems for naval, nuclear power plants, we tried to make everything “sailor-proof.” In other words, we tried to make it impossible to make a serious error. Unfortunately, we found that sailors are marvelously inventive!
During a ship’s construction we made sure the nuclear reactor compartment was carefully cleaned every night. What we never imagined is that a worker would clean up and then pull off the protective cover over the end of one of the main pipes and put the trash in there! We did not appreciate that kind of creativity; we were not amused. Neither was Jesus amused by those hunting loopholes in what God commanded them. Do you look for ways around what God says?
Divorce was as common in Jesus’ day as it is today. They relied on Deut. 24:1, which says, “If a man marries a woman and she does not please him because he has found something offensive in her, then he may draw up a divorce document, give it to her, and evict her from his house.” Turner says, “Apparently, many teachers of Jesus’ day had taken this passage as carte blanche for divorce.” A spoiled meal, a loud retort, or even the availability of a more beautiful woman were all accepted reasons for a man to divorce his wife! He need only give her the required certificate.
In contrast to the Pharisees, who seized upon the concession Moses had made because of hardened hearts, Jesus had a different teaching for his disciples. Jesus declares that these casual divorces were forcing the women involved into spiritual disloyalty to God. Craig Blomberg clarifies 5:32 by saying, “Jesus maintains that the divorce itself creates adultery — metaphorically, not literally — through infidelity to the lifelong, covenantal nature of marriage.”
It is important to address the phrase except for immorality (5:32), because it appears to be the sole cause that Jesus will accept for divorce. The underlying Greek word is porneia, and it generally refers to unlawful sexual relations (i.e. between unmarried people); that could include both fornication and adultery. So, Jesus allowed divorce related only to serious sexual sin, not the trivial causes allowed by the Pharisees. Further, Jesus did not command divorce in such a case even though both Roman and Jewish law required divorce for these grounds.
The Pharisees stressed the provision Moses made for divorce caused by hard heartedness (Matt. 19:8), but Jesus emphasized God’s original purpose in marriage to create a one-flesh relationship (Matt. 19:4–6). Because of the teaching of the religious leaders, the exception allowed by Moses had swallowed the rule established by God! Without contradicting Moses, Jesus emphasizes the sanctity and seriousness of marriage.
The fact that Jesus did not intend a flat prohibition of divorce is proven by the fact that Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, expressly allowed divorce in a different situation than that defined by Jesus (1 Cor. 7:15–16). Craig Keener says that ancient hearers expected that statements of general principle needed to be qualified for specific situations, and they waited to hear the nuances. Jesus intended here not to lay down the law but to combat complacency about divorce and to reassert God’s original intention for life-long marriage.
Jesus expects more of his disciples than the lax standards set down by those who neglect God’s Word. The exception never swallows the rule with Jesus, because Jesus is the rule!
Back to the future
Reasons for divorce are as lax today as among the Jews in the first century.
If we give our concentrated attention to protecting and nurturing marital relationships, then we will honor our relationship to Christ and show the world that his kingdom surpasses all others!
Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from material created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.
 David L. Turner, Matthew, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2008) 171.
 Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992) 111.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007) 467.
 Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1999) 190.