In order to have a proper understanding of divorce, you must first have a proper understanding of marriage – the first human institution created by God at the very beginning of our existence. To assert that marriage is a lifelong bond between a man a woman is not a political, social or cultural statement. It’s simply stating the facts as they are presented in Genesis and the rest of the Bible. Genesis says that God created “male and female” in His own image (1:27), and that He blessed them and commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it…” (1:28). The Lord, after creating Adam and seeing that “it was not good for man to be alone,” created a “helper fit for him” – woman (2:18), made not out of the dust of the ground like Adam or the animals, but out of man (2:19-22). Adam was so pleased by Eve he exclaimed, “This is at last bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” The next verse begins with a “therefore,” so God creating Woman from man is the reason why a man and his wife are to live together unashamed and in a unity so close they are “one flesh.” “One flesh” is such a vivid depiction of the strength of the marriage bond that is both a metaphor for sexual union (that which in God’s eyes actually consummates a marriage covenant – 1 Corinthians 6:16 says, “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh’) and a warning of the harm that comes from tearing a man and woman apart.
In case there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind, marriage is a big deal to God. It is within the context of marriage that God gives the first command in the Scriptures – to be fruitful and multiply, which is to have families. The author of Hebrews says to “let marriage be held in honor by all…” (13:4) and Paul the Apostle warned of those who would come in the last days and forbid marriage (1 Timothy 4:3). Proverbs 5:18, 18:22, 19:14 and 31:10 make it clear marriage is a blessing from the Lord. Consider also the words from Malachi 2:13-16:
And this second thing you do. You cover the LORD’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand.
But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant.
Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.
For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.
Marriage is big deal to God not only because of it’s key role in promoting healthy, godly families, but also because it’s ultimately a picture of His relationship to His people in both the Old and New Testaments. God refers to Himself as the husband of the people of Israel in the language of many of the prophets and decries Israel’s unfaithfulness to Him many times. In spite of all His longsuffering and mercy, His “wife” continued to “play the whore” and remained in unrepentant unfaithfulness to God to the point where He divorced her (Isaiah 50:1 and Jeremiah 3:8). However, as shown so painfully in the life of Hosea the prophet who was directed to marry a prostitute who was unfaithful to him multiple times, God’s desire is for reconciliation and restoration of the marriage covenant. In the new Testament, the people of God – the Church – is described as the “Bride of Christ,” and the way He relates to His bride is put forth as an example for husbands to imitate (Ephesians 5:25-29). In fact, Paul states explicitly in Ephesians 5:31-33, wherein he restates Genesis 2:24, that the “mystery” of marriage is “profound” and “refers to Christ and the church.”
Again, marriage is a big deal to God. Therefore, divorce is also a big deal to God. Jesus’ condemnation of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount was not in response to a question, as it is later in Matthew 19:1-12 (and paralleled in Mark 10:1-12). He brought it up because it was important and because God’s design “from the beginning” was to not have separated that which He joined, that much is clear. What’s not so clear is how to rightly apply this passage today. Back then, “sexual immorality” was pretty straightforward. Today, we have the internet, cell phones and other mediums for sexually immoral things to take place. Some would argue that only the physical act of adultery constitutes grounds for divorce. Others would argue, even relying only on the previous verses about lust in the heart being commensurate with adultery, that viewing pornography, thinking about someone lustfully or an “emotional affair” are grounds for divorce.
This is also a difficult topic because it is so epidemic in our broader culture and in the Church, and so there is much hurt, guilt and offense to consider when dealing with it. However, we cannot and should not shy away from it because of the fact it’s so clearly important to God. There’s so much that can and should be said on this topic, but I’ll summarize with this what I believe to be the main points of Jesus word in Matthew 5 and 19, as well as God’s intent from all the other related passages:
- Marriage was created to be a lifelong, “one flesh,” covenant relationship between a man and a woman “from the beginning.” This is evidenced by the fact Genesis 2:24 is quoted in whole or in part five times in four different books of the Bible.
- Divorce, while allowed in cased of sexual immorality, is not part of God’s original design, nor is it the preferred course of action. Rather, Gospel-empowered reconciliation should be sought. Hosea 3:1 and 5 says, “And the Lord said to me, ‘Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins … Afterward the children of Israel shall return and seek the Lord their God, and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the Lord and to his goodness in the latter days.”
- We should not, like the Pharisees, seek the “easy way out” of marriage as it suits us. My understanding is that women in those days were being divorced for such small reasons as not being good cooks. Marriage relationships are hard and take work, self-sacrifice and real love. Good feelings and gushy emotions are a plus, but are also fleeting and inconstant. Thus, it takes determination, commitment and learning selflessness to make marriage work.