January 28, 2021

Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 6: More Jesus

jesusgirl.jpgDivorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 1
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 2: A Map For the Road
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 3: One More Question
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 4: The Law and The Prophets
Divorce, Remarriage and the Gospel 5: Jesus

At this point, the road is going to fork, and you are going to have to make some decisions. There’s no avoiding it. IVP’s Divorce, Remarriage: Four Christian Views can show you four of these forks in the road, and you can understand them all in a basic way without immense amounts of study.

All these positions have scripture, reasonable interpretations and strong arguments in their corner. All are believed and taught by people who are equally submissive to the authority of scripture and equally committed to the Gospel. None of these arguments rest upon a rejection of the Lordship of Jesus or a dissolving of the authority of scripture.

Still, you will make up your own mind, starting at the point of Jesus’ own words on divorce and remarriage, as to what is really going on here.

It’s clear from the texts I’ve cited (in Matthew) that…

1) Jesus is reemphasizing the creation ordinance of marriage. He is reasserting the divine intention over what the human track record has been. God’s ideal of marriage has never vanished, according to Jesus.
2) Jesus accepts the old covenant history of accommodating to the brokenness of humanity by allowing divorce in the laws of Israel.
3) He accepts that God allowed divorce through the “bill of divorce” method described in Deuteronomy 24.
4) Jesus says remarriage following divorce for any reason other than sexual immorality is adultery, by either intention or default.

The reason this is a fork in the road is that we are left with a lot of questions to answer, and we all aren’t going to answer them the same. You must make some interpretative choices and move forward to the outworking of your views.

a) Is Jesus approving of divorce, but not approving of remarriage except in the cases of an adulterous spouse?
b) If this is the case, does it mean that the Christian community obeying Jesus’ words could potentially be populated by, even led by, numbers of divorced persons who had chosen not to remarry because it would be wrong?
c) Is Jesus saying that remarriage is wrong in the instance of other heinous, terrible sins against persons in marriage, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse and abandonment? Or only in the case of sexual immorality?
d) Is Jesus definition of adultery in Matthew 5:27-28 relevant for his discussion of remarriage in Matthew 5:31-32?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Matthew 5:27-28)

e) Are Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:10-12 applicable to the discussion on marriage?

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.

In other words, is Jesus saying that only some persons can live out the high standard of marriage described earlier in the chapter? If so, what about those who are not “given” the kind of faithfulness and perseverance required to remain married no matter what? Is this a kind of distinction that should make some difference to us as we consider this topic?
f) How much do the “background controversies” influence our understanding of these passages? Is Jesus standing against the common abuses of women in a culture where women were treated as disposable and had almost no legal rights at all? Is he speaking in hyperbole in the context of rabbinic controversy about the abuse of easy divorce? Is he speaking with the sense of impending crisis that we read in some of Paul’s advice about marriage to his churches?

As I said, you will have to make your way through these crossroads, and you will make your own choices. I won’t make them for you. I will share with you how I read this passage. I’ll tell you one thing before we get to those places: I am a lot more interested in the big picture of the significance of Jesus than I am the details of any controversial passage. Let me give you an example:

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” (John 4:15-18)

I’m not quoting all of this story, because the majority of my readers know it well. It’s one of the great chapters of the Bible, and it is a great “big picture” passage. The woman’s sexual past, marital history, Samaritan ethnicity and gender were of no particular interest to Jesus. What was important? This woman was filling up her life with substitutes for the significance and love of her true husband, Yahweh. She needed living water, and she needed the one who gives water without cost and without deserving it. She needed to believe in God’s messiah, and come to receive from him, eternal life in all its dimensions.

That’s how I understand Jesus. The primary thing is not that I have screwed up my life, and may continue to do so. That’s a given. The primary thing is Jesus himself, and the Gospel that comes to me in him alone.

I used to work at a store where several Christians worked. One of the guys we Christian folk witnessed to was a young man who was divorced and remarried. One evening, another Christian- a Church of Christ guy- and I were talking religion with this fellow, Harold, and the Church of Christ guy said that if Harold became a Christian, he would need to go back to his first wife and remarry her.

Yes, you read that right. Now, what was this person thinking of? He was thinking of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 and 19. There had been no adultery. Harold’s marriage broke up, and he tried again. That didn’t matter to the Church of Christ guy. The marriage was illegitimate and needed to be abandoned, and the first marriage restored. Then God would be happy, of course, because that’s what God is all about: people repenting correctly.

If the Church of Christ guy had been at the well with this woman and Jesus, he would have listened, and when Jesus left, he would have said, “Ma’am….let me add a few things to what Jesus said here. Your various arrangements have all been sinful, and if you become a believer in the messiah, you will need to go back to husband #1, if you can find him, and make that marriage work again, no matter what. Repentance is very important to real faith, and we can’t overlook these illegitimate sinful relationships. That would be a bad witness.”

Of course, that would be really stupid, but it would be taking the verses seriously. Not the Gospel, but the verses.

I have a friend named Grady. Grady works with me. He has been married for many years, and has adult children and two grandbabies. He’s a wonderful Christian servant. He’s in his mid 50’s, and when he was 18, he was married for 6 months. It was a terrible mistake, and it ended almost as soon as it began. Grady became a Christian, married a Christian girl and has a fine marriage and family.

So what should we tell him Jesus thinks about him? My friend John was married for less than a month before it all fell apart. It was an awful mess, and showed the flaws and immaturities of everyone involved. I wish it hadn’t happened. So does John. But it did. Can John ever be married, a Christian father and husband? Or is he to be a single guy, living out the legal consequences for a failed marriage?

I always seem to come back to these verses from Corinthians, because they are so pertinent to the working out of problems like the ones we encounter at this point:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

Were any of the former adulterers in the Corinth adulterers who were guilty of ending their marriages, remarrying, and then coming to Christ? Were any of the former drunkards remarried after alcohol ended a marriage? Did any of the thieves or swindlers lose spouses due to their behavior and possible incarceration? Were any of those persons remarried?

Can you believe that, based on the words of Jesus in Matthew, the only legitimately remarried persons in the New Testament communities were those who were widows/widowers, victims of adultery or abandoned by non-Christian spouses? Do you believe the leadership of the church enforced that view of marriage?

I don’t. I think Jesus was speaking to the specific context of the common abuse of Deuteronomy 24 by men in his culture. I think Jesus saw the sinful woman in John 4 as sinful, adulterous, forgiven and legitimately married. I believe the early Christian communities contained divorced and remarried people much like our own, and that these persons were sinners, with failed marriages, but also people given new hope, forgiveness and a new life in and through Jesus.

I believe the church taught the high view of marriage in Genesis 1-2. I think the church taught that divorce is a result of the failure of humans to live in right relationship to God. I think they taught that God hates sin, he hates the abuse of anyone as a victim of another’s sin, and he offers, in Jesus and the Gospel, new life, new beginnings, new hope and forgiveness in Jesus.

You may see it differently. That’s OK. This is where I’ve come out. The big picture of Jesus and the Gospel is what I want to live in. A text that draws a smaller circle than the Gospel does is a text with a context I need to understand, but it is not a text that should erase the one who offered living water to a five time marriage loser, as she was, in the marriage where Jesus found her.


  1. Michael,

    I find the context instructive here. Jesus is talking about adultery. He is saying that divorce and remarriage is the same as adultery. In this context, what he means is that just because you divorce your wife and marry another woman before you have sex with her doesn’t mean that it is not adultery.

    This makes a lot of sense to me. It fits with Jesus’ attitude and his focus on “the big picture.”

    I also think that it is helpful to remember that Jesus is an eastern teacher who often “overstates” a point for emphasis. (Note the passages about the hand and the eye.)

    I’ve found this understanding of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage helpful. Your mileage may vary.


  2. …it is not a text that should erase the one who offered living water to a five time marriage loser, as she was, in the marriage where Jesus found her.

    Even more importantly, I think, is that she was in a relationship that wasn’t even marriage, and yet we still don’t see Jesus addressing that (other than to amplify on her “I don’t have a husband” comment).

    This has been a very good series, Michael. And I think you’ve done justice to all the positions and understandings of this. I can’t remember now off the top of my head if you dealt with this particular aspect, but I find it very interesting that many who will claim to take Jesus’ words at face value (i.e., no divorce except for adultery) — which by the way, I’m not in any way demeaning taking Jesus’ words at face value! — usually end up adding other “exceptions” in, such as physical abuse.

    While I certainly don’t fault people for saying that people in a physically abusive situation should get out (I pretty much feel the same way about it), I think it’s a bit tricky to say that we’re using Jesus’ words as the rule, and then start adding our own exceptions to it.

    Did I say that in a way that made sense? Anyway, great series, Michael. I need to go back and re-read it now that all these posts are done.

    steve 🙂

  3. selkie1970 says

    Wow –
    What a great series. I just sat and read them all at once. I come from a little different perspective, but also a practical one. I am a family law attorney (read: divorce lawyer) by profession. As you can imagine, it gave my evangelical family some consternation when I made that choice. My reasons for my choice were myriad, but suffice it to say that I took my role to be “pouring oil on troubled waters” as much as possible, and if I could convince one or two clients to work on their marriages rather than ending them, all the better.

    I have often thought that modern Christians put far too much emphasis on the dangers and “badness” of divorce and remarriage. As you have, I have heard numerous comments and sermons over the years on this topic. However, I have never heard someone seriously take Jesus’ advice and “gouge his eyes” out for looking at a woman lustfully.

    My greatest wish is that the church would put the issue of sexuality in the larger context of living a Christ-centered life. I believe that Christians are coming around to this, with the explosion of discussion about various sexual addictions, etc. But for many years, the only acknowledgement that we are made to be sexual beings was the admonition to marry (early) and stay married. Which is a difficult teaching these days, especially to those of us Gen-Xers who were never given tools to deal with our sexuality as we remained unmarried well into our thirties. “Nice girls don’t, and guys don’t either” wasn’t particularly helpful.

    Anyhow. Well-written and thougthful series.

  4. ed lebert says

    I don’t think anybody’s going to disagree with your conclusions, Michael. But the burning question isn’t “Are we sinners saved by grace?” but rather “Is divorce and remarriage sin?”. You can’t assert you’re a sinner saved by grace unless you assert you’re a sinner. Is divorce and remarriage sin according to Jesus? Yes. Therefore we should not counsel a Christian to remarry after divorce.

    Yes Jesus died on a cross for our sin – but that is the only way we are cleansed of them. We are not free from the guilt of divorce and remarriage because
    1. we were young and foolish,
    2. our spouse was evil,
    3. it’s just too hard to be unmarried now
    4. our second marriage is much better,
    5. we were only married for six months so it really doesn’t count.

    The big picture is Jesus on a cross for our sin. The women at the well is embraced by Jesus on the grounds of the cross, not her excuses. Therefore we should embrace and forgive eachother on the grounds of the cross, not our excuses.

    My father is the woman at the well. If one day he asks Jesus, “Sir, give me this water.” nobody will be able to condemn him – not because he has excuses, but because he has a savior.

  5. ddickens says

    I was out of town for a week and missed the continuation of this topic.

    I’m facinated by the amount of material and “thinking” you’ve put into this topic. I tend not to be so comprehensive (ok, part of me is thinking “convoluted”, but that’s just me being negative).

    I’m still stuck on the larger issue. What does God want from us if it isn’t clear what God wants?

  6. I am the child of a divorce. Divorced. My father left my mother, was a minister that ran off with the organist. My sister was left by her husband, a christian. My brother was left by his wife, a Christian. All supposedly Christian. Divorce is an exuse not to pray and believe that God is big enough to help us love someone unloveable. We only love God who we can’t see… as much as we love our spouse… who we can see. I think the idea of people making excuses for their behavior rings much more true. There are dangerous situations where one spouse needs to leave where their spouse is abusive (and I mean to the point of being able to kill them… not the little verbal stuff that some people make so much “to do” about). If Jesus laid his life down for us… and we are suppose to lay our lives down for others… why not for a “spouse” who we vowed (many of us before God) to love all the days of our lives. I personally think that many of us are just not loyal or faithful to anyone or anything that costs us. I think that divorce is too easy… I know people who prayed for their marriages in the worst of circumstances — it wasn’t easy adultry, pornography, abuse of every kind… and God showed up and dealt with the hard-hearted mean spouse. The scripture tells us that God wants us to be Thankful and prayerful in all things. That is His will. Divorcing our spouses is not a “thankful” or prayerful response… Love is the only thing that doesn’t fail… and love endures and perseveres. When has the church in America persevered thru anything lately? We are about ourselves — what makes us happy. If you read the new testament or the old — God wasn’t about making people happy or successful. There is no place in scripture where it says God worries that we might not be happy with Him. It does say that testing will come — and those who are faithful recieve the crown of victory. I’m really sick of “I’m sorry” where there has bene no effort to love or heal. I’m tired of the easy Christianity that gives nothing to the hurting… but instead leaves hurting people to fend for themselvesto go have a good time. Christianity is about being there for one another and it starts in the home. No — you can’t keep a marriage together if your spouse leaves you — but who of you knows that your prayers may not bring the saving grace of God into their lives and a “new wine” into your marriage? Divorce is too easy in the church. Those who don’t go to church have better marriages — because they don’t have the expectations of “easy” and “successful” and “looking good on the outside”. The church is too superficial. Excuses show the kind of people we are… even in truth. My spouse left me. He got tired of working at marriage. He wanted “success” and “ease” of life. My illness wasn’t what he wanted out of life — it made it too difficult for him. He didn’t understand it and didn’t want to take the time to understand “life from my perspective”. Where is the compassion for our spouses? We only love God as much as we love the person we hate the most… We can see them… we can love God thru them… The choice to wait for a spouse to return is for the individual — but Jesus calls us to be like Him… and He waits for us… even when we have been unfaithful to Him. I guess the question is more about “who do I want to be like”? Do I want to be like Jesus or every other guy? I think divorces within the marriages of those who claim to be church goers is hire than those who don’t go.

  7. PS. For those who are left by their spouses or leave spouses who are terribly abusive (meaning horrible ways), usually their second marriages are better and blessed, but no easier… they still have their problems. But usually people will try harder in the second marriage as well — because now they know they don’t want to go thru what they went thru already. Some spouses come home, their pride is broken. Some spouses will not come home because it is a matter of pride. I have studied divorce and questioned people who have divorced, are divorcing, and children who have experienced it… and those who leave their spouses for another person or “success” or the lie of a better life or more happiness or money — shallow reasons often find themselves bound to a person twice to four-times worse, and with more issues, than the person they left. That, as a child of divorce myself, I find a bit amusing. Scripture says how we measure it to others — IT WILL be measured back to and upon us. Divorcer beware… how you treat your spouse will come back upon you. Your pride may not let you see it… but others watching know… and see it.

  8. I grew up with parents who should have divorced. In fact, in high school we begged them to divorce. My mother and father were violent with each other and fought horribly every day for my entire growing up life. They called each other the worst names. How they had 5 kids I never did figure out. But I never saw a loving moment between them. As adults, my brothers are both alcoholics. My oldest sister is so afraid of ending up like Mom that she never married. (She’s 62 now and lonely, riddled with regrets.) My other sister and I are both divorced and remarried having made terrible choices the first time around. My mother wouldn’t leave the marriage because her Christian values said she couldn’t. So staying married in their case screwed up 5 more lives in a way that is as bad, or worse, than a divorce ever could have.

  9. Mary,

    I 100 per cent agree that staying in such a marriage has consequences that would hurt all children. My husband was married and divorce when i had met him. Since our marriage my life has been a misery. To cut this short I divorced him after 15 awful years only to re marry him because I was made to feel so bad by my church family. 11 years later and the children have flown the nest. They are ALL affected. I am so hurt and because of the fact that I am a Christian and really do not like divorce the time spent in this marriage has been awful. Arguing – drinking alchohol and abandonment are just a few of the problems that have returned. The thing i really want to know is Does God not understand there are times when a divorce is needed? As A Loving Father in Heaven he knows we are NOT perfect. I have 3 grown children and i love them so much. If I can overlook their mistakes then how much more can a loving Father in heaven forgive mone? No Offence nobody should be made to stay in a marriage that has them isolated – hurt and often beyond despair. My grown children will not marry because “their minds are screwed up”. I should have left at the very first time I was to suffer from domestic violence and also abandonment. My heart goes out to all who suffer and especially those who remain in marriages because they fear God. I dont think i could marry again and am thankful to all who have shared their views here. GBU and Thanks for talking about this subject.

  10. mike culver says

    I have enjoyed reading all the posts left, it does give much food for thought. I have been divorced for 16 years and never lived with or shacked with anyone. It does leave you lonely and yes i love god and am so glad he is a patient loving god. although i wish my marriage had worked out i still do wish for that companion who loves god and worships him on a daily basis, but i wonder if that makes me guilty as well….


  11. Rocky Winters says

    I have searched and prayed for answers about divorce since my parents divorce when I was 12 years old. I also found myself the victim of divorce from my own marriage.

    In my parent’s case, my dad ran off with a busty blond. In my case, my unbelieving spouse abandoned me sexually and Satan came in and destroyed my marriage. 1 Corinthians 7:5

    Here’s what I have concluded:

    God hates divorce. Malachi 2:16

    He also forgives. 1 John 1:9, John 8:1-11

    If you seek answers to divorce according to the law, then you will be condemned by the law.

    If you confess your sin…and seek His forgiveness, you will be forgiven by His Eternal Grace.

    Your choice: Guilt or Grace!?

    Christ died as our punishment. He who knew no sin, became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21).

    How cool is that?!

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