“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Jesus’ remarks in these two verses concerning divorce are at once so simple, and so complicated; there has been so much confusion within the Christian community over the centuries. Before we go too far, let’s keep in mind the context in which this falls: Jesus is teaching the people how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven, both as it is in this life and how it will ultimately be when the Kingdom is consummated upon His return. He is linking this new kind of life with that of old Israel by going straight to the old Law and then showing the people what God’s intentions were about their obedience, in contrast to the way they have been taught by the Pharisees and teachers of the law who take the approach of legalism and legal minutia rather than the approach of faith in God.
In the old system, a man could easily divorce his wife by giving her a certificate of divorce: bam, there it is. This was never pleasing to God, and it was never His intention that this be used as a means of simply discarding one woman in favor of the next, for it goes directly to heart of covenant faithfulness, and marriage between a man and wife is a picture of the covenant relationship between Man and God. You will no doubt recall how Israel was portrayed by the prophets as an unfaithful bride.
Notice how Jesus takes exception to this by saying that a man who divorces his wife makes her an adulteress, along with any subsequent husband she may find, except in one case.
The one exception to this rule is what the NIV calls “sexual immorality” which is their translation of the Greek word porneía, meaning two things: Sexual immorality and/or idolatry. Most often, it is translated “fornication”, but it carries with it the implication of idolatry or placing something above or in place of God. What we need to recognize is that the pure and simple physical action here really isn’t the main problem; for the main issue is the fact that one covenant partner is acting in total disregard of their covenant vow to the other. The failure on the part of many teachers over the centuries to include this aspect of the word and context into their teachings has had serious implications in the lives of people, implications that have resulted in chaos, to say the least. I say this because the traditional teaching is that a divorce cannot take place without inappropriate sexual relations between one of the partners and an outsider. The result has been that many women have been forced back into homes where they and their children are subjected to serious violence because the violent person didn’t have an affair. No affair, he just beat his wife and children senseless wherever he felt like it.
I have news for those who teach such things: A man who is beating his wife and/or children is just as much in total disregard of his marriage vows as anyone who is sleeping around, and he is placing the indulgence of his violent tendencies in place of God and His righteousness, making him an idolater. It always amazes me how otherwise rational people freak out when sex is an issue, often overlooking other issues that are really the root of the problem.
However you might read these verses, I’m sure that we can all agree that Jesus is telling us that God does not much like divorce, and that we must be willing to do everything that we can do to maintain our covenant relationships and help our covenant partners do keep their covenant responsibilities, just as God goes the extra mile to help us keep our covenant responsibilities to Him.