Have you or anyone in your immediate family been divorced? Divorce means “to go separate ways.” A couple cannot divorce unless they have first been married. God designed marriage for the man to leave his family, cleave to his wife, and weave his life with hers (Genesis 2:24). Consequently, God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). In spite of the Bible’s clarity on the issue, the divorce rate is higher among the churched than the unchurched. In His third of six examples of inside out righteousness, Jesus taught His disciples to be divorce free. In each example, Jesus followed a three-fold pattern: (1) he addressed an Old Testament command saying, “You have heard it was said;” (2) He alluded to the Pharisees’ legalistic interpretation; and (3) He clarified the intent, or spirit, of the law, prefacing His fulfillment with, “But I tell you.”
The Old Testament Command: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce'” (Matthew 5:31). Jesus referenced Moses’ Law that said, “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” (Deuteronomy 24:1). How one defined “indecent” was the hinge point in the interpretation and application of this verse.
The Legalistic Interpretation: “A husband who gives his wife a certificate of divorce has no obligation to her.” Two thousand years ago, two rabbinical schools differed in their interpretation of “indecent.” One held a conservative interpretation, the other one liberal. The conservative interpretation from the School of Shammai defined “indecent” as “adultery.” The liberal interpretation from the School of Hillel defined “indecent” as anything displeasing such as “spoiling a dish,” adding an exception for divorce when “finding another fairer than she.” Although that sounds flippant, it represents the climate of our culture today. Whether conservative or liberal, the legalistic interpretation of the law removes the man’s obligation to his former wife when he issues her a certificate of divorce.
Outside in righteousness says that what we do warrants a corresponding response from God. Get a legal divorce, and remove any obligation. That’s religion, not relationship. It follows the letter of the law, but misses the spirit of the law. Jesus fulfilled the law by clarifying its intent.
The Spirit of the Law: “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adultress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32). The exception of adultery is not a one-time act to be used as a loophole to exit one’s marriage. Rather, it is a continual, unrepentant act; one that is also superseded by forgiveness. Jesus said that Moses permitted divorce only because men’s hearts were hard, noting that divorce was outside of God’s original design (Matthew 19:8). In essence, Jesus said, “Be committed,” which means, “to stay together.”
Inside out righteousness flows from the heart — a heart that is fully surrendered to Christ. This is how His righteousness is applied to us. Commitment is the spirit of the law because God is committed — He maintains His love (Exodus 34:7). He will never leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). Christ is the ultimate picture of that commitment. On the way to the cross, He said to the Father, “Not my will, but yours” (Luke 22:42). In a world where there is so much desire for change in relationships, we can take heart Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). We will remain committed to our spouses only through Christ in us. Our commitment to Him is reflected in our commitment to each other. After all, God is searching throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to Him (2 Chronicles 16:9).
If you have been divorced, you have not committed the unforgivable sin. In Christ, God will forgive you and restore you. If you are considering marriage, realize that you are about to make a covenant — not merely an agreement — with three parties: you, your fiance, and Christ. If you are considering leaving your spouse for another person, then turn back to keep your commitment made before God. Most churches will not marry a couple where one party has left his spouse for the other because Jesus was so clear on this issue (Matthew 19:3-12). That relationship is rooted in sin and dishonors God.