“It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality (fornication, B.H.) causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).
The context should be considered: (1) Jesus in this same sermon said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets, I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). The Law would one day be abolished (Ephesians 2:15), that is – render inactive (Vine’s). However, Jesus’ aim in this sermon was not to contrast Old Testament teaching and New Testament teaching. (2) The context concerns the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus taught, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). This was primarily a contrast between what God wanted, and how the Scribes and Pharisees had perverted His message. (3) Jesus taught some things which went beyond Old Testament teaching. He taught that they should turn the other cheek, be willing to give up cloak, go the second mile, love their enemies, and practice The Golden Rule.
When a man divorced his wife, he was to do so with a certificate of divorce (Matthew 5:31 cf. Deuteronomy 24:1-4). The Scribes and Pharisees were correct on this point.
They were great on legal procedure, but was this all that mattered? Had they considered what divorce did to women? Had they actively tried to discourage divorce? Many then, as now, did not think past civil legality.
Consider a wife living in the first century. Her husband decided to divorce her; even though, she had not been unfaithful to him. What happens to this woman? The man “causes her to commit adultery” (NKJV, KJV), “maketh her an adulteress” (ASV), “makes her commit adultery (NASB, ESV). A suggested literal rendering is: He causes her “to be adulterized.” How does he do this? Here are two suggestions: (1) Some have suggested that the meaning is that she was by the divorce “stigmatized as an adulteress” (Lenski, The Interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel, p. 232). The difficulty with this view is that Israelites divorced for reasons other than adultery. Why should she automatically be thought of as an adulteress? (2) A better suggestion may be found in her likely eventual remarriage. Remember that it was very difficult for a woman, at that time, to support herself. Donald Carson has written, “A woman so divorced found herself many times in practical necessity of remarriage to find support for herself… She was under pressure to enter into a union which was illegitimate because she was not eligible to marry” (ed. Jim Laws, Spiritual Lectureship book: Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, p. 362). Wayne Jackson has commented, “Now the presumption is this: if a man just whimsically and capriciously throws his wife out – he divorces her – what will she likely do? Go find another man!” (Jackson & Scott, Divorce and Remarriage, p. 34).
Moreover, what about the man who married this woman? Had these leaders thought about him. He was committing adultery by marrying this woman. The present tense could be rendered “is committing adultery” or “keeps on committing adultery” (Jackson, p.35).
May we develop a concern for others. May we consider how our action might affect others. May our righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.