As promised some pages ago, we now need to interpret the words of Christ in light of what we’ve learned from Paul. We need to avoid the temptation to treat Paul as less worthy of respect than Christ. Rather, the Bible does not contradict itself, and 1 Corinthians 7 teaches what it teaches. We can’t ignore its words to force a presumed conclusion on it.
And so, we turn to the Sermon on the Mount.
(Matt. 5:27-48) “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. 37 Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
This quotation is perhaps too long, but it’s for a point. In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is addressing Jews who are under the Law of Moses. And Jesus goes through several familiar teachings in the Law of Moses and shows how the Law had been misinterpreted in then current society.
Moses never taught “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Rather, Moses taught “Love your neighbor” (Lev. 19:18). But this plain teaching had been distorted and perverted in the First Century. Jesus called his listeners back to the original meaning of the command.
In each case, Jesus was neither adding to nor taking away from the Law. He was rather showing how Moses’ teachings should have been understood. Ultimately, Jesus’ point was to show how people in the coming Kingdom of Heaven were being called to live — to a standard anticipated by the Law and the Prophets but not fully realized until the coming of the Christ (Matt. 5:17-20).
So let’s now focus on Jesus’ instruction on divorce-
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”
Plainly, Jesus’ point is something like this: Moses taught you not to commit adultery-but you divorce your wives and think that this avoids violating the marriage covenant. But I tell you that the divorce itself violates the marriage covenant as much as adultery does — because after you put your wife away, neither you nor she can keep the covenant that you made!
Recall that Jesus is interpreting Deuteronomy 24, which states:
(Deut. 24:1-4) If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, 2 and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, 3 and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, 4 then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the LORD. Do not bring sin upon the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance.
The Jewish rabbis disputed over the meaning of this passage, and the disagreement was well known in Jesus’ day. First, notice that the primary point of the passage is to deny a husband the right to remarry his wife after he has put her away and she has married another man.
Almost incidentally, Moses refers to the first divorce as being based on “something indecent” about the wife. The second divorce is because the husband “dislikes her.” The rabbis debated whether divorce was permitted only due to some indecency or due to merely disliking the wife. The meaning of “something indecent” is much debated, even today.
Jesus clearly takes the more conservative position, saying the standard is fornication, very likely Jesus’ interpretation of “something indecent.” He is not making new law.
But as shown by the context, Jesus is also addressing the Ten Commandments, and concludes that Moses was indirectly addressing “Thou shalt not commit adultery” in this passage.
If a man divorces his wife to marry another woman, then he’s committed adultery with the other woman in his heart long before he puts his first wife away. He is, therefore, an adulterer. Moreover, if a man “puts away” his wife by breaking his marriage vows, he is a covenant breaker, and hence an adulterer.
As God hates divorces and wants his disciples to honor their covenants, he expects divorced couples to reconcile whenever possible, just as Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 7:11. Although a couple is divorced, they are still bound by their covenant and should honor it if possible by reconciliation and repenting of the sin that led to the divorce.
However, if the wife remarries, she makes reconciliation impossible. Moreover, so does her new husband. Both have made it impossible for the couple to reconcile. In fact, once the second marriage occurs, reconciliation can never happen without violating Deuteronomy 24. Hence, the second marriage makes the first covenant impossible of performance. And covenant breaking is adultery.
This, I think, is at least the heart of Jesus’ point. Remarriage is not sin (Paul said so), but remarriage that prevents a possible reconciliation is. Of course, not all marriages have any hope of reconciliation, but many do. Therefore, it is very unwise, even wrong, to quickly remarry after a divorce. Marriages “on the rebound” are notoriously unlikely to work, and they often occur before any serious effort can be made to work through the problems that led to the first divorce.
After all, divorces happen for reasons, and sometimes the reason is that the divorcing spouse has ungodly attitudes or other issues that will cause the second marriage to fail as well. From a pastoral standpoint, the parties to a divorce should be honest and vulnerable enough to do some self-discovery before entering into another marriage. They may well find that once they learn the causes of the first divorce, they can reconcile. Or even if reconciliation is unrealistic, they’ll make a much better second marriage.
Eph. 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast.”; Rom. 3:27-28 “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”