Divorce & Remarriage: Reading in light of covenant theology (Part 1)

divorce5In response to the readers’ questions, I wrote a series of comments dealing with how we should read the Bible’s passages regarding divorce and remarriage in light of the covenant theology we covered in last year’s series on “How to Study the Bible.”

That is, we must not assume that Jesus repealed the Torah and enacted a new law. Rather, in the Gospels, Jesus is interpreting Torah — not under the new covenant but as it should have been interpreted then and there.

In 1 Cor 7, Paul takes the teachings of Jesus and applies them in the Christian context — but Paul is also not making new law. Rather, he taking the principles found in Jesus’ words and applying them in a world where some people aren’t children of God and some are, where one spouse is and one spouse isn’t, etc.

The rules don’t change. Rather, different covenants present different circumstances for applying the same principles.

We therefore should not use the Gospels to override the words of Paul or read Jesus without regard to the OT background. And this changes everything.

Christopher wrote,

1) Man should not separate what God has joined together (in marriage)

Agreed. But the traditional view is that man cannot separate what God has joined together — a marriage cannot dissolved, except for fornication. You are bound by the marriage until you or your spouse dies or commits fornication. Jesus in fact clearly assumes that marriage can be dissolved — but he says it is sin to do so.

2) God permitted divorce, in opposition to God’s desire and plan for marriage, because the Israelites’ hearts were hard

Agreed. We infer that the result is now different, but Jesus doesn’t actually say so. The hearts of the unredeemed are just as hard if not harder than the hearts of the Israelites. Many of the redeemed are married to the hard-hearted and have no control over the unredeemed putting them away. And even among the redeemed, while we should be better — and statistically are better than the unredeemed — hard-heartedness still persists.

We assume Jesus is implying, “But now it’s different …” This comes from our dispensational perspective that Jesus came to repeal the Law of Moses and enact a new body of law — which is demonstrably false. Rather, Jesus came to tell us that God’s people had badly misunderstood the Law. The Sermon on the Mount would be an excellent example of Jesus teaching, not that the Law is bad and needs to be repealed, but that the Jews have misinterpreted and misapplied it in countless ways.

What did the Jews misunderstand about divorce? That it’s possible? Jesus says it’s possible. That divorce is okay and we may lightly dissolve marriage because there’s a mechanism to do so? Yes, I think he rejects exactly that thinking (the school of Hillel). The contrast is not “You may no longer have divorces” but “Any breaking of the marriage covenant is sin and Deu 24 does not justify being unfaithful to your wife — even looking lustfully at another woman.”

3) Moses’ allowance is not part of Jesus’ plan going forward, but that anyone who divorces his wife – except for unfaithfulness – and remarries commits adultery (for which one could be stoned to death under Mosaic law), a very serious sin

To read that Moses’ allowance is no longer permitted contradicts —

(Matt. 5:17-20 ESV) 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

— as well as Paul’s several statements that the Law is good and holy.

(Rom. 3:31 ESV) 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

(Rom 7:7 ESV) What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.”

(Rom. 7:12 ESV)  12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 

(Rom 7:14 ESV) For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.

(Rom 7:16 ESV) Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.

(1Ti 1:8 ESV) Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully,

Therefore, as previously explained, we must not read into the text something Jesus did not actually say, based on a bad dispensational theology. Jesus did not come to correct Moses’ errors. The Law is from God, holy, and good.

4) Jesus’ disciples were so astonished by the seriousness of this teaching that they replied if that is the way it is, it’s better not to get married in the first place

True — but to a good Jew (or Christian), the fact that something is sin is quite enough to make us want to avoid it. Grace does not cover knowing rebellion against God’s will.

5) Jesus did not disabuse them of that idea, only that not everyone could accept being unmarried

Agreed. Jesus approves singleness — contrary to the rabbis but consistent with the deep things of God. And he says only those willing to make a lifetime commitment to a spouse should marry. But he does not say divorce is the unforgivable sin or that God doesn’t recognize a divorce that is sinful. That is to impute a legalism to Jesus’ ministry that just isn’t there.

Jesus did not come to make law, much less civil law. Rather, he came to reveal God and his true nature. Thus, Jesus’ re-interprets the Law in ways that were often unexpected. But he doesn’t legislate.

After the resurrection, the apostles and the rest of the church were put to the task of interpreting Torah in light of Jesus. They never once say, “Torah is repealed, so we need not bother with it.” If that were the rule, then the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 was surely a waste of time. Rather, they re-read Torah in light of the Jesus event, especially God’s invitation of the Gentiles into the Kingdom as Gentiles — not Gentiles who become Jews as proselytes. This — and Jesus’ atonement and the destruction of the Temple — all change our reading of Torah radically. But it’s not repealed. It’s fulfilled — which is only meaningful in light of the foregoing.

I don’t have to sort through every nuance to know that Jesus did not come in saying that Moses was wrong and I need to fix his mistakes. Rather, Moses was quite right in allowing divorce — but only if you first realize that any breaking of the marriage covenant is sin. Therefore, the ending of marriage and allowing remarriage through the issuance of a get (certificate of divorce) is a compassionate way to cope with the inevitable failings of fallen people — not an excuse to be unfaithful.

The Jews were using Deu 24 — which requires a certificate of divorce that specifically permits remarriage (we have copies of gets older than the NT) — to abuse women and the system. Divorce is not a tool to dispose of an old wife so you can trade her in for a new one. Rather, recognizing the marriage as ended is part of how we try to restore shalom to a difficult, broken situation. But if you use the get system as a means of being unfaithful, you are guilty of a very serious sin. God hates putting away.

Hence, Paul said what he said in 1 Cor 7:26-28 — not being a dispensationalist and therefore understanding Jesus better than we tend to do.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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2 Responses to Divorce & Remarriage: Reading in light of covenant theology (Part 1)

  1. Excellent presentation! So clearly explained! Jesus reinterpreted the Torah in surprising ways! I have much to learn. How may I explain this to hardened traditionalists?

  2. Ray Downen says:

    What many find hard to understand is that Jesus on earth was a Jew teaching OTHER JEWS what it takes to please God. His apostles taught what NOW pleases God, and their teaching is NOT based on the law of Moses.

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