In approaching any part of the truth of God, we must consider that the Scriptures are the final authority, and that no passage of Scripture contradicts another. If Scriptures appear to contradict, then it is best to wait until light comes in, rather than "force" an explanation. Further, it is important not to allow what we don't understand to confuse us in what we do understand. The answer to our problem may lie in the context, or in another part of Scripture, ie. in an understanding of the subject - indeed an understanding of God. At Corinth it was said: "Some are ignorant of God". The mind of the Lord is not determined by a mere knowledge of words, but by Himself. "Then he opened their understanding to understand the scriptures". Luke 24:45
In summary, I see the Lord's teaching on divorce as follows:
He reverts to God's original thought, the man and woman to become one flesh, and "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate." (Matthew 19:3-5 and Mark 10:8-9). All the Lord's words, Matthew 5, 19, Mark 10 and Luke 16:18 indicate that both the persons are guilty of adultery when they re-marry. Further, these principles apply whether it is the man or the woman who divorces (Mark 10:13). And a person who marries one who has been put away is also guilty of adultery, from the above scriptures. Adultery is a sin against the other partner, when a couple is truly married. There is no mention of innocent or guilty parties in the New Testament. Fornication is promiscuity outside the married state. Many modern versions do not properly render the translation.
The only ground for divorce is fornication. Note carefully, it does not read "adultery". This is of great importance, particularly when the marriage relationship is under discussion. The Lord uses the words distinctly and on two separate occasions, in Matthew 5 and 19. Some would suggest that the words are used inter-changeably. The two scriptures just quoted refute this. Another New Testament scripture differentiates: "Fornicators and adulterers will God judge". There may be occasions when the one word includes the other, but when the Lord uses them both in the same discussion, it is for us to take note. Indeed, he uses the different words in the same sentence, and in speaking on the subject of the marriage relationship!
The Meaning of Betrothal.
The custom in Israel was to exchange marriage vows, then live apart for some time. At some point the marriage supper was held, and then the consummation of the marriage. This is critical to the understanding of the Lord’s teaching in Matthew’s gospel. This exchange of vows was called “betrothal”.
How do we know about this custom? Do we have to be historians and read secular history? No, the scriptures are complete. Scripture gives us what we need to know. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 gives the example of "a damsel, a virgin, betrothed to some one" in verse 23, and she is described as being “his neighbour’s wife” in verse 24. Here, then, is a very clear definition of betrothal. I value concordances and dictionaries, but the final authority must be the scriptures. A concordance might say “betrothed” means “engaged”. The above shows that in scripture "betrothal" means that marriage vows have been made. Another interesting reference occurs in connection with the assembly, the church; it is said in Revelation 19:7 "...the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife has made herself ready". She is the wife before she is the bride.
In short, there is the "betrothed wife" and the "married wife". The former is referred to in Luke 2:5, "with Mary who was betrothed to him [as his] wife". The latter is spoken of in Isaiah 54:1 and it is not tautology. Sadly, modern translations change this latter verse, whereas the KJV and the Darby translation preserve the original.
The betrothed situation is set out in a striking way with Joseph and Mary in Matthew 1. Joseph is described as "her husband", verse 16, "before they came together", verse 15, and "fear not to take to thee Mary, thy wife". Note, it does not say “fear not to take to thee Mary as wife". Indeed, had she not already been his wife, putting away (divorce) would not have been applicable.
The Lord’s Birth Protected Publicly by this Custom.
Another precious truth comes to light. By such a custom, the Lord's birth was protected - in the public eye - from any appearance of evil. We know of the wonder of the incarnation; the general populace at that time did not. Once a couple had been betrothed, they could legally and righteously take up their marriage rights, although no doubt they generally waited until after the marriage supper.
It is in this interval, before the couple come together as God provided from the beginning, that the sin is described as fornication, and divorce is allowed. Once the marriage is consummated, then: "What God has joined together, let not man separate". This is not to make light of the earlier marriage vows, but to distinguish things which differ.
How does this apply in our times?
The comments in this paragraph are for interest only. Customs around us do not carry the authority of scripture.
A marriage by proxy is a modern example of the “betrothed” state. Another example: in Germany, this custom has been practiced at least until recent times. No doubt many other examples could be cited. A further example: A Peruvian brother and a local sister were married by a celebrant. They chose to live apart for a short period before he returned to Peru. He waited there until he was granted Australian residency status. On his return they had a church wedding, the wedding breakfast, and then took up married life.
Why is the exception described only in Matthew’s Gospel?
Now it is most instructive that the two references to the special case occur only in Matthew. This gospel presents Jesus to Israel, as their Messiah according to prophetic scriptures. From beginning to end it has Israel in mind - "Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham", in chapter 1, to the disciples being sent to "the nations" in the last chapter. The Jewish disciples are sent to the nations, as distinct. The Lord's commission was to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" and this is seen in his movements in every gospel. But in Matthew he addresses them as Jews especially, just as I might address a company of Chinese people, either as part of the human race, or as Chinese people in particular. In chapters 1-4:11, Christ is presented to Israel as the leader and shepherd from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2); from chapter 4:12 to chapter 20 he is presented to Israel as the Light from Zebulun and Naphtali; and in chapter 21, as the King coming in meekness according to Zechariah 9:9. Throughout this gospel, the action is Jewish.
In Mark and Luke there are no exceptions. To my mind the Lord is speaking of the normally accepted understanding of marriage, the way in which all, everywhere, consider it. In Matthew, with Israel especially in mind, the special case is described. It is a case that would be well understood by the Jews.
In Romans 7, the apostle Paul confirms that marriage is a life-time bond. This is again stated in 1 Corinthians 7:39, “A wife is bound for whatever time her husband lives”.
In Matthew 19, the Lord having put the allowed exception to them, the disciples then seek to add their own piece of wisdom. They say:".... it is not good to marry". The two had not become "one flesh", so the man must be left free, in the case the disciples propose. Notice also that the disciples do not say "re-marry". I do not see the expression "re-marry" spoken of favourably by the Lord at all. Nor do I find any reference in the New Testament to the thought of the true marriage bond being dissolved. Adultery involves sin against the other partner, but I do not see here that the Lord indicates it breaks the marriage bond. On the contrary, he speaks of subsequent marriage as involving adultery against the first spouse.
What is the instruction in 1 Corinthians 7?
In this chapter, Paul is answering questions put to him in a letter.
Some of these questions concerned marriage partners who were not both believers in Christ. One had received the gospel, and the other not. Under the law, an Israelite had to separate from a foreign partner. Paul shows the superiority of this present Christian period. They were to recognise the marriage bond and stay. The unbeliever and the children were holy – at least as to their position - because of the believer. The believer was not to separate.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul speaks of being separated, not "put away". The thought expressed is "leaving", as the Darby translation puts it. In the Greek, the word used for "put away" - as used by the Lord in the Gospels - is not used in this chapter, even though it is so translated in the Authorised Version (KJV). Anyone can learn this, as I did, by looking up Strong's Concordance.
But the believer was not forced to prevent the unbeliever from going away. Verse 15 describes this. The Christian was “not under bondage to” restrain the unbeliever from leaving. The believer is not expected to unduly press or harass the other to remain, "for God has called us in peace". The word for bondage here is derived from “doulos”, service or bondage. It does not mean the marriage bond is loosed. It is not the word for loosening a knot, as in being free from the marriage bond. People have used this verse to say that “desertion” is a ground for divorce. If this were the case, scripture would surely say how long to wait. It does not because it is not the subject at all.
Now what happens if separation has occurred? The answer is very clear in verse 11: “but if also she shall have been separated, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband”. And this statement is powerfully reinforced by Paul saying in verse 10, that it was “not I, but the Lord” who stated this. If a believer goes away, what then? If I act as an unbeliever, I have to be treated as an unbeliever.
In this chapter I do not find any allowance for divorce. The word is not mentioned in the Greek. The apostle has in mind recovery of the unbeliever. Verse 16 reminds us that one may be the means of saving the other.
This chapter in Corinthians does not mean that a woman has to remain in a violent or otherwise damaging situation. A woman may have to live separately in some cases. The chapter answers the question as to what happens when one party becomes a Christian. But in doing so it gives the principles that are to govern – the blessing of the household and the conversion of the other spouse.
What about people who have divorced and re-married, and are happy?
Experience, or outward success, is not to be our standard. The scriptures are our standard. We must judge of things morally, not by appearance or experiences. Even the wicked may prosper, as Psalm 73 reminds us.
What about a situation where a person has entered marriage inadvisedly?
God requires us to honour our commitments and pay our vows. This principle is set out very clearly in the history of Israel. When they entered the land of Canaan the Gibeonites were afraid of them and came to Joshua, pretending to have come a great distance - see Joshua 9:3-27. They wore tattered clothing and carried dry and mouldy bread to deceive Joshua and the elders of Israel. A covenant was made with the Gibeonites, that they should not be put to death. Although the elders learnt that they had been deceived, they had to honour their agreement. In fact many years later, in 2 Samuel 21:1-14, we learn that God enforced the agreement by sending a famine on Israel for three years because king Saul had disregarded that agreement and put to death some of the Gibeonites.
There is grace to sustain us in every right situation. When Paul asked to be relieved of a “thorn for the flesh”, the Lord’s answer was: “My grace suffices thee”, 2 Corinthians 12:9.
In the last 40 years the sanctity of marriage has been greatly undermined. Laws have been changed to suit popular opinion rather than reflect God's will. Even Christians have been affected by the trend. God is "The Same" - this is one of His titles.
May the Lord give us the grace to “hold fast the right”.
MM January 2003; revised 2007