What does Jesus say about divorce?
In the gospel of Luke, the teaching of Jesus about divorce is stated briefly and forcefully: Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18). (Jesus makes one exception to this that will be discussed later.)
Jesus calls something adultery here that many people do not want to classify as adultery.
What is adultery? According to the dictionary: Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than his or her spouse.
Many want to understand this as other than his or her present spouse, whereas Jesus classifies a wrongful remarriage as adultery!
This teaching of Jesus contradicts what many people want to believe.
The response of Jesus’ own disciples was: If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry (Matthew 19:10).
Jesus’ definition of divorce is based on the nature of marriage (the case of the man with his wife) which is different from what many think. Marriage is instituted by God. The marriage obligation to be faithful is binding for life. Marriage is a covenant. Violating the original marriage covenant is adultery, even after divorce unless the divorce was caused by the infidelity of the other partner (this is discussed later in the article).
Marriage is instituted by God
Many people view marriage as a purely human agreement, like a rental contract or an agreement to buy a cow. Contracts made by men can be dissolved by men, and men may define the provisions of the agreement. But marriage is not like that.
According to Jesus, marriage is much more than an ‘agreement,’ even more than what we would call a ‘contract.’ Marriage is a God-made covenant.
Easy divorce and remarriage are nothing new. This was a point of controversy between the school of Hillel (‘liberal’) and the school of Shamai (‘conservative’) among the Jewish Rabbis: The House of Shamai says: A man must not divorce his wife unless he has found her unfaithful. As was said: (Deuteronomy xxiv, 1) Because he hath found some uncleanness in her. The House of Hillel says: He may divorce her if she only spoiled a dish for him because it was said: Uncleanness in anything. Rabbi Akiba says: He may divorce her if he found another that is more beautiful than his wife, because it was said: (Deut. xxiv,1) If it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes. (Mishna) [‘The Babylonian Talmud in Selection,’ Edited and translated by Leo Auerbach, Philosophical Library, New York, 1944, Second Edition, Page 178].
Against this backdrop, the Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce. 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?’ 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 19:3-6).
This life-long marriage union is made by God Himself! This explains Jesus’ concept of adultery as sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other that his or her first spouse with whom one has become one flesh, united by God for life!
Not only was marriage instituted by God in the beginning, but according to Jesus, each man and woman is united by God in marriage to become one flesh for life. This does not depend on man’s understanding. According to Jesus that is the way it is whether people understand it or not. From the reaction of Jesus’ disciples (and some of them were married) it is evident that they had not understood it that way before: If such is the case of the man with his wife, it is better not to marry (Matthew 19:10).
But this is the case of the man with his wife! Marriage is instituted by God. Husband and wife are united by God as one flesh for life.
The marriage obligation to be faithful is binding for life
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 (1 Corinthians 7:39). 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 (Romans 7:2,3).
Marriage is instituted by God for life. It is then of great importance to understand what constitutes a marriage.
Marriage is never viewed as a ‘religious’ ritual in the Scriptures. Fellow believers may of course pray for newly weds and ask God’s blessing for their marriage. But God has never given any specific instructions in that regard.
In the Scriptures the finalization of a marriage takes place in society with witnesses, with God also as a witness. A marriage should be in accordance with the laws of God and in accordance with local ordinances: Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves (Romans 13:1, 2). We are to obey the laws of the civil authorities unless they conflict with God’s laws. In that case: We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
In the Scriptures, the decision to marry, or even the betrothal, does not result in a right to have intercourse. This right only exists after the finalization of the marriage.
In Israel a betrothal was so binding that a betrothed person was almost in the same position judicially as a married person. (A divorce was required to break the betrothal.) Yet, there was no right to have intercourse until after the finalization of the marriage which was usually one year after the betrothal.
Each society has certain forms and rules that must be respected for a marriage to be valid. As we read in Romans 13, God requires that we abide by these ordinances.
In the Scriptures a marriage is never merely a private agreement between a man and woman. Society always plays a role in one way or another. Although the forms differ, all societies have a concept of a ‘valid’ or ‘legal’ marriage. It is clear from various examples of marriages in the Scriptures that God recognizes these forms if they are moral. The differences in form do not prevent marriages from being instituted by God.
At the same time, it is also clear that the civil status does not always correspond with how God views the situation.
John the Baptist was beheaded because he preached this truth: For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. For John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’ (Mark 6:17,18).
Civil divorces and marriages that conflict with God’s laws are not morally valid. Even though Herod ‘had married her,’ Herodias was his brother Philip’s wife and it was not lawful for him to ‘have’ her. Regardless of the specific details of this situation, it still shows that it is possible for two people to be ‘married’ when they still may not be together. The civil status does not always correspond with the will of God.
Marriage is a covenant
God hates divorce. In reply to those who asked
why God refused to accept the sacrifices of Israel, He
Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’
Because the Lord has been witness
Between you and the wife of your youth,
With whom you have dealt treacherously;
Yet she is your companion
And your wife by covenant.
But did He not make them one,
Having a remnant of the Spirit?
And why one?
He seeks godly offspring.
Therefore take heed to your spirit,
And let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth.
‘For the Lord God of Israel says
That He hates divorce,
For it covers one’s garment with violence,’
Says the Lord of hosts.
‘Therefore take heed to your spirit,
That you do not deal treacherously’
Notice the expression ‘your wife by covenant’ which is an accurate translation of the original. Marriage is a covenant instituted by God. He is witness.
Also notice that in addition to ‘your wife by covenant’ it also says ‘the wife of his youth.’ It is perversion of Scripture to appeal to the statement ‘God hates divorce’ in support of a claim that people should not separate who, according to Jesus, are committing adultery because of remarriage! Then one could also claim that Herod and Herodias did not have to separate because ‘God hates divorce’! What God has joined together, let not man separate (Matthew 19:6).
Violating the original marriage covenant is adultery, even after divorce
Jesus’ teaching about the consequences of remarriage after divorce is based on the nature of marriage. Marriage is instituted by God. The marriage obligation to be faithful is binding for life. Marriage is a covenant.
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18).
Whether people understand this or not, marriage involves a covenant to be faithful for life and to give oneself to no one else. When such occurs, even via divorce and ‘remarriage,’ this constitutes adultery according to the teaching of Jesus. The marriage covenant is being violated.
Attempts to nullify the words of Christ
What Jesus says is clear. But some try to muddy the waters by asking various supposedly difficult questions. For example: Is the divorced woman still the wife of her first husband? Does God recognize the second marriage? May she return to her first husband after she has been married to someone else? Actually, these questions have nothing to do with the fundamental question. When Jesus does not expressly answer a certain question it means either that the answer is of no significance or that we can learn the answer elsewhere in the Scriptures.
When we ask who is, and who is not, married we must keep in mind that the Scriptures sometimes use the word ‘marry’ in a civil sense when the situation does not correspond with the will of God. Herod had ‘married’ Herodias. In Luke 16:18 Jesus also says that this man ‘marries’ the divorced woman. Yet, even though they are ‘married,’ they are committing adultery!
Some people object: But Jesus doesn’t say what they must do. He doesn’t say they have to separate. The word of God is not unclear about what people should do who are committing adultery! As Jesus told the woman caught in the act of adultery: Go and sin no more (John 8:11). Adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9,10). Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge (Hebrews 13:4). We do not have to wait until the Day of Judgment to know God’s judgment on adultery.
The same applies to the similar argument relative to the woman at the well to whom Jesus said: You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly (John 4:17,18). Some have suggested that she was allowed to remain with that man since we ‘don’t read’ that Jesus told her to leave him! Jesus remained two days in that city teaching. This woman no doubt already knew what she needed to do, since she understood that the man was not her husband. But even if she didn’t, we know from John 8:11 what Jesus tells such a person: Go and sin no more.
Among the many strange attempts to nullify the words of Christ, some have even claimed that adultery has nothing to do with sex! Notice, however, what is said about the woman taken in adultery: Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act (John 8:4).
When Jesus says: Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18), the word for ‘commits adultery’ is MOICHEUEI. This is the present indicative form of the verb that has the significance in Greek of ‘is committing adultery.’ A continuing situaton is being described. Each time a married person has intercourse with someone other than the spouse ‘by covenant,’ adultery is being committed.
Some, however, in their attempt to nullify the words of Christ, have claimed that one can commit adultery only one time! Their ‘reasoning’ is that when adultery is first committed the marriage vow or covenant is broken and therefore no longer exists!
When someone breaks his vow even once, it is true that he can no longer say he has kept his vow!
But it remains possible to break that same vow time and time again! And the only chance for reconciliation after such a violation is found in the instructions of Jesus: Go and sin no more! (John 8:11). In the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament we find the same word, MOICHEUOUSIN, in Ezekiel 23:43: Then I said concerning her who had grown old in adulteries, ‘Will they commit harlotry with her now, and she with them? Thus it is even possible to ‘grow old’ committing adultery!
To nullify the words of Christ, some claim that baptism sanctifies the current ‘marriage’ regardless of what has happened previously. Sins are forgiven by the grace of God at baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Ephesians 2:5; 1 Peter 2:18,19). To be valid, however, baptism must be based on repentance (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 11:18; 17:30) which includes turning away from sin. When one becomes a Christian, his past sins are forgiven, but baptism does not change the marital state of the person being baptized. John the Baptist told Herod: It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife (Mark 6:18). Herod’s unlawful marriage would not suddenly become lawful if he submitted to John’s baptism.
Sometimes 1 Corinthians 7:24 and 27 are misapplied to justify remaining in a marriage that Jesus classifies as adulterous: Brethren, let each one remain with God in that calling in which he was called. ... Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. The requirement of repentance prevents one from remaining in a wrong relationship. The expression ‘bound to a wife’ can only refer to a relationship of which God approves.
Some have even made the preposterous claim that a non-Christian is not under the law of God! If that were true, a non-Christian could not sin at all and would not need the blood of Christ!
We must accept the words of Christ: Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18), because He also warns us: He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him - the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day (John 12:48).
Worldly people do not like what Jesus says about divorce. And some Christians - after dancing the ‘Scripture Twist’ to the modern beat of ingenious rationalizations - are speeding down the freeway to destruction.
Paul repeats the same teaching
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). These words from God are ‘to the married.’ Nothing limits this passage to believers. Jesus also says ‘whoever’ when He speaks about this topic.
Some claim that ‘to the rest’ in verse 12 indicates that verse 10 only applies to believing couples. But Paul is discussing certain questions he had received from the believers at Corinth (verse 1) and ‘to the rest’ refers to remaining groups of people who are under discussion. If one connects ‘to the rest’ with ‘to the married’ in verse 10, he would have to be speaking of people who are not married, but he is now discussing people who are married, but to an unbeliever. As it says, verse 10 applies ‘to the married.’
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).
We are also told what must be done ‘if she does depart.’ A reconciliation is ideal. But sometimes this is not possible. In that case one who is separated must ‘remain unmarried.’ This is a logical consequence of what Jesus teaches because if a divorced person remarries, he commits adultery. Thus the only way to avoid committing adultery is to remain unmarried.
Divorce (even without remarriage) is not in agreement with God’s intentions, but it is not adultery! Remarriage after divorce is adultery, however.
Paul goes on to make it clear that if a separation occurs because an unbelieving partner leaves, the Christian is not responsible for the action of the other person.
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 (1 Corinthians 7:12-14).
This is simply repeating what has already been said: A wife is not to depart from her husband. ... And a husband is not to divorce his wife. But what if the unbeliever leaves the believer?
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 (1 Corinthians 7:15).
God hates divorce. But if the separation is effected by an unbelieving partner, the believer is not responsible for the separation. Nothing is said about remarriage in this passage. The expression ‘not under bondage’ is not the same word that is used for the normal marriage bond. The word is DOULOO which means ‘to be enslaved.’ The same word is found in Titus 2:5 where it says that older women may not be enslaved to wine. Thus, marriage is not a condition of slavery. Because separation is against the will of God, a believer might want to prevent the unbeliever from leaving, whatever the cost. Paul makes clear, however, that an unbeliever is himself responsible for what he does.
The expression ‘not under bondage’ refers to the obligation of married people to stay together. This may not be misused to claim that a believer may then remarry just because the unbeliever has left. ‘To the married,’ Paul has already said: But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband (1 Corinthians 7:11).
In a new marriage after divorce, both parties are committing adultery.
And in the house His disciples 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). (Notice that Jesus says ‘whoever’ which includes Christians and non-Christians.)
Now we see why Paul said, But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. When one remarries after divorce, one commits adultery. They who divorce or are divorced, must remain single as long as the spouse lives. Otherwise, they commit adultery.
There is one exception to this, which we find in Matthew, and will discuss later. But first we are discussing the rule! The exception does not apply to most divorced people anyway. When someone claims that the guilty party in a divorce allowed by way of exception, may also remarry, he is forgetting that the rule applies for everyone except someone who can appeal to the exception!
What about the law of Moses?
The Pharisees came and asked Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ testing Him. And He answered and said to them, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her.’ And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. 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’ (Mark 10:3-9).
In the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus mentions differences between the Law of Moses and His teaching, He says: Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery (Matthew 5:31, 32).
Notice that Jesus says ‘whoever.’ What he says applies to all.
If a man divorces his wife because of sexual immorality, she has already committed adultery. But if he divorces her for some other reason, he causes her to commit adultery if she remarries.
Except for sexual immorality
In Matthew, one exception is found that is not mentioned in the other gospels. To the question of the Pharisees, Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away? Jesus replies: Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery (Matthew 19:7-9).
Since this exception is not mentioned in the other gospels, some have attempted to discount it. When God says something once, however, it is true.
The word ‘except’ means ‘with the exclusion or exception of,’ ‘on any other condition than that.’ Thus, this passage clearly excludes from the general principle the situation where someone divorces a partner because of sexual immorality and marries another. Also inherent in the statement is, of course, the premise that the one divorcing the immoral partner has himself remained faithful.
This one exception, however, does not detract in the least from the general principle in all other cases. Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery (Luke 16:18).
Many practical questions are asked about what someone should do who discovers he is committing adultery, especially with regard to obligations to others. Because of the innumerable variations of circumstances, each case must be examined in the light of God’s word. It must be said, however, that the common principles of responsibility and righteousness always apply. One is responsible, financially and otherwise, for raising children one has conceived, whether they are legitimate or not.
A brother in Africa told me about a man who had several children by a girl to whom he was not married. He wanted to leave that woman and his children, become a Christian and marry a rich Christian woman! The brethren told him that repentance meant that he had to marry that girl and take care of his children!
I once read about a woman who said her former husband complained that it was so difficult to send her money for his children and take care of his ‘new’ family as well! Her reply was: Well, you should have thought about that before you ran off with another woman!
The Scripture quotations in this article are from
The New King James Version. ©1979,1980,1982,
Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers unless indicated otherwise.
Permission for reference use has been granted.
Published in The Old Paths Archive