DID THE LORD JESUS PERMIT DIVORCE
ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι, καὶ ὃς ἐὰν ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσῃ, μοιχᾶται.
"But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery." (Matthew 5:32; 19:9)
Some Pharisees sought to test Jesus through a question: "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?" (Matthew 19:3–9; 5:31-32; Mark 10:11–12; Luke 16:18)
The nation Israel was divided over this issue. Followers of Hillel felt a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason, but others, following Shammai, thought one could not divorce his wife unless she were guilty of sexual offense. Without getting involved in the Hillel-Shammai controversy, the Lord Jesus reminded the religious leaders of God’s original purpose in establishing the marriage bond. God made people male and female (Matthew 19:4; Genesis 1:27). In marriage, He joins them together in an inseparable bond. This bond is a higher calling than the parent-child relationship, for a man is to leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife in a one-flesh relationship (Genesis 2:24). Therefore, what God has joined together, men ought not separate (see also 1 Corinthians 7:10).
The Pharisees, realizing that the Lord Jesus was speaking of the permanence of the marital relationship, asked why Moses made a provision for divorce for people in his time (Matthew 19:7). The Lord’s answer was that Moses granted this permission because people’s hearts were hard (Deuteronomy 24:1–4; Matthew 19:8). But that was not God’s intention for marriage. God intended husbands and wives to live together permanently. Divorce was wrong except for marital unfaithfulness (Matthew 5:32; 19:9).
The Lord Jesus was speaking of the permanence of the marital relationship, however, He subsequently made a provision for divorce on the ground of "immorality" (Matthew 5:32; 19:9), it seemed contradictory to His own standpoint. Bible scholars differ over the meaning of this “exception clause,” found only in Matthew’s Gospel.
The Greek word for “sexual immorality” is πορνείας (transliteration: porneia). Bible scholars proposed the following four different opinions :
"porneia" as a sexual offense that could occur only in the betrothal period when a Jewish man and woman were considered married but had not yet consummated their coming marriage with sexual intercourse. If in this period the woman was found pregnant (as was Mary in Matthew 1:18–19), a divorce could occur in order to break the contract.
"porneia" as a synonym for adultery. Therefore, adultery by either partner in a marriage is the only sufficient grounds for a marriage to end in divorce. Among those holding this view, some believe remarriage is possible but others believe remarriage should never occur.
"porneia" refers to a relentless, persistent, unrepentant lifestyle of sexual unfaithfulness (different from a one-time act of illicit relations). Such a continued practice would thus be the basis for divorce, since such unfaithful and unrelenting conduct would have broken the marriage bond.
"porneia" refers to illegitimate marriages within prohibited degrees of kinship (Leviticus 18:6–18; 20:21). If a man discovered that his wife was a near relative, he would actually be involved in an incestuous or invalid marriage. Then this would be a justifiable grounds for divorce. There is a contemporary example that John the Baptist had forbidden the Herod to marry his brother’s wife, because that fell under the prohibition of incest (Matthew 14:3-4; Mark 6:16-20; cf. Leviticus 18:16; 20:21). This meaning of porneia is also found in the rest of the New Testament (Acts 15:20, 29; 1 Corinthians 5:1).
Proposals 1 to 3 are unlikely to be true because they overlook the Lord Jesus' teaching of forgiveness (Matthew 6:12; 18:22; Luke 6:37; John 20:23). According to the context in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3–9; Mark 10:11–12; Luke 16:18), the Lord Jesus obviously affirmed the permanence of marriage. In other words, the meaning of this “exception clause” must not contravene the permanence of marriage. Proposal 4 provides a satisfactory solution to the problem because an incestuous marriage is prohibited by God, therefore it should be viewed as an invalid marriage. Hence, there is no contradiction between the exception clause and the permanence of marriage.
The Lord Jesus was actually saying that divorce was not permissible except the marriage itself was invalid or illegal. In other words, the Lord Jesus never permit divorce under normal circumstances.
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