When we say things like, “this or that is grounds for divorce”, or “this permits me to divorce him or her”, I really don’t think we truly understand God’s heart on marriage. This is something I struggled with for a long time, even fought God on in the beginning of my stand. When my husband left, I was done. It was my plan to move on and marry another Christian man after our divorce was final. God had very different plans for me! And I am so thankful that He did.
I have been standing now for just about 5 years. God has been good to open my eyes to the beauty and sanctity of marriage, and to help me connect verses of seemingly contrary Scripture through the OT and NT like pieces of a puzzle. While I will not claim to have a perfect understanding, God has given me much more clarity and perspective than I had when I started, and not only that, He’s changed my heart. I want to walk you guys through my journey on this, and tell you that when I started, I DID NOT believe this way about marriage. I had a hard heart… So here we go.
Marriage in its design is precious to God. In the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve were joined together, we got the very FIRST glimpse at what God would do to reconcile us to Himself. Marriage was the first institution that God established to point to the relationship between Christ and the church. It now becomes a reflection of what He has already accomplished in making us His bride. We see this in Ephesians 5:22-33:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[a] 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Marriage was made to be a picture of the gospel. We see this further in Malachi 2:15:
Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?[f] And what was the one God[g] seeking?[h] Godly offspring. So guard yourselves[i] in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.
The same Holy Spirit that binds us to Christ once we are His is the same Holy Spirit that God imparts to us in our marriage – A beautiful picture of our salvation and redemption. All through the Old Testament you see God painting a picture of this with Israel – a cycle of rebellion, separation, rescue, and restoration over and over again. Though sometimes there were some VERY harsh consequences, restoration and healing were ALWAYS God’s end goal. This gives US a picture of how WE are supposed to treat marriage. Hosea really brings that image into focus. So how did divorce come into the picture at all? Let’s look at what Jesus says in Mark 10 (the parallel passage is found in Matthew 19):
And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away.” 5 And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.
Jesus said it himself – Divorce was given by Moses because of the hard heart of MAN (Hard heart can mean unforgiveness, bitterness, refusal to repent from sin, or refusal to obey God or heed His voice).
In Deuteronomy 24 we find this law that Christ was referring to:
If a man marries a woman, but she becomes displeasing to him because he finds something improper about her, he may write her a divorce certificate, hand it to her, and send her away from his house. 2 If after leaving his house she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the second man hates her, writes her a divorce certificate, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house or if he[a] dies, 4 the first husband who sent her away may not marry her again after she has been defiled, because that would be detestable to the Lord.
I wrote an in depth study on this verse that I recommend reading for more insight, but for now, we will just deal with how it pertains to divorce. As you can see, Moses was dealing with a practice that was already happening, but setting the guidelines for it because of their hard hearts. The Hebrew word “ervah” for improper (also translated uncleanness or indecency) in this context was likely being used to refer to some type of sexual sin that brought shame to the family (keep in mind the punishment for adultery even through the time of Christ was death. This more than likely dealt with other forms of gross sexual sin. Jesus later clarifies this in the NT).
The interesting thing about this is that even God makes sure He gives man the credit for this EVEN IN THIS CIRCUMSTANCE when in Jeremiah 3 He says:
They say, if a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s, shall he return unto her again? Shall not that land be greatly polluted? But thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, says the LORD.
Now that we understand WHERE divorce came from and HOW it came about, let’s jump ahead to the NT. By this time several hundreds of years had passed. The Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) was already in circulation and was the translation being used by the Jews during that day. The Hebrew word “ervah” had been mistranslated to a word, ἄσχημον, which meant “unattractive or properly lacking appeal”. Because of this, the true meaning of Deut 24 had been lost. We see this when the Pharisees in Matt 19 (the parallel passage) say:
They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds?”
This next part is where the confusion comes in. Many perceive Jesus’ response as grounds for divorce, or permission for divorce, but we have to remember WHO Jesus’ audience is – The Pharisees. Rather, Jesus is simply CLARIFYING the true meaning of the law given in Deut and dealing with a practice already happening in their culture. Look at what He goes on to say and look at how his disciples respond! Even they misunderstood:
7 “Why then,” they asked Him, “did Moses command us to give divorce papers and to send her away?”
8 He told them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning.9 And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”
10 His disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of a man with his wife is like this, it’s better not to marry!”
11 But He told them, “Not everyone can accept this saying, but only those it has been given to. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, there are eunuchs who were made by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way because of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
In this conversation, Jesus clarifies to the Pharisees and His disciples (also Jews of that day) that the word “ervah” for “improper” in Deut 24 meant “pornea” –sexual immorality, and not simply “unattractive or lacking appeal” or as the Pharisees would say, “on any grounds”. We have to remember that Jesus not only knew the law perfectly, but upheld and taught it perfectly as well. He was not giving a new law; He was simply bringing clarity to one that had lost its meaning. In the same breath, He states GOD’S original intent for marriage –
“Haven’t you read,” He replied, “that He who created[a] them in the beginning made them male and female,” 5 and He also said: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate.”
Now we really begin to see God’s heart on marriage. So how do these passages about divorce apply to US as NT believers? To fully understand, we have to take a look at Paul’s writings as well as what was changed in Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul had a unique encounter with Christ, and possible spent time learning from the risen Christ himself. I think this gave him more zeal and more perspective.
1 Corinthians 7 – 10 Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. 11 But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.
12 But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. 13 And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
First some clarity and context on this verse (for a more clarity, read the study I wrote on 1 Corinthians 7). The phrases “not under bondage” and “God has called us to peace” are not referring to marriage, divorce, or remarriage in the Greek. In the Greek and context of this passage they are referring to freedom from our day to day responsibility to be an up close and personal missionary to an unbelieving spouse, and the freedom to place that responsibility on God. Does this absolve us of our responsibility to be a reflection of Jesus? No, it simply allows us to lay our spouse at the feet of Christ and be at peace knowing God is sovereign. GOD is responsible for our spouse’s salvation. This freedom allows us to fully commit ourselves to serving Him with undivided attention, which brings joy and fulfillment.
The first part of the verse is the part of the verse that I really want to look at –
10 Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. 11 But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.
So why does this seem to differ from what Christ teaches in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 or in Matt 5? There are three reasons we see this shift:
- Major event
Christ’s teachings were directed towards the Pharisees and the Jews of that day PRIOR to His death and resurrection. Paul’s teachings were directed towards US, NT believers AFTER Christ’s death and resurrection. What changed? Christ fulfilled the law in all aspects AND WE BECAME HIS BRIDE. WE ARE RESTORED TO GOD. He has recovered us from the fall and the bondage of the law. What once would have defiled us is now forever covered by His blood. The marriage of Christ to His bride was perfected in His death and resurrection (though you could say we are still in the “betrothal” period because we are not yet physically present with Him, but under Jewish law betrothal was still legal marriage). I believe this is why Paul goes on to say in this chapter AND in Romans 7:2 – “ by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him.”
We serve a covenant-keeping God, and WE are His image-bearers. We are His visual aid to the world, and unconditional love and faithfulness in our marriage is the truest way to reflect what marriage was meant to be – an image of the gospel. It is because God desires that lifelong bond we have with our spouse mirrors the eternal bond we formed with Christ when we became His bride. We see in this that marriage is about so much more than just being happy. Marriage is about reflecting who God is. Marriage is about reflecting what He has done for us. It is a platform for the gospel. THIS IS WHY WE STAND. We are faithful to our spouse in their unfaithfulness as God is to us. We remain steadfast in our covenant when we are abandoned as God remains steadfast in His when we abandon Him. We love them unconditionally in their rebellion as God loves us in ours. We intercede for them in prayer for their salvation as Christ petitioned God for us in ours. We show them tenderness, kindness and compassion in their hurt and brokenness as God does to us in ours. We show them unconditional mercy and forgiveness because God has forgiven us for so much more and His mercies are new every morning. Standing makes us look like Jesus- not only to our spouses, but to all the eyes watching! It demonstrates in a VERY tangible way, the unconditional and enduring love, faithfulness, mercy, kindness, and goodness of God. What a blessing it is if we are doing it for the right reasons!! What a privilege it is to become the image of Christ to a lost and broken spouse, and to a lost and broken world.
This is why I believe that MOST are truly called to stand. There will be some circumstances that prevent us from physical reconciliation (sexual abuse of a child by a spouse, etc), but this, fortunately, is not most cases. As NT believers, we need to carefully consider the words of Paul as He conveys God’s word on marriage and brings His heart on it and His purpose for marriage into focus for us.
God is both faithful and able, and whether we are separated, divorced, reconciled, or happily married, it is HIS desire that our marriages reflect the gospel, that they reflect His relationship with us. Our HEART and attitudes toward our spouse should convey the same love, compassion, and graciousness that He gives to us EVERY DAY. Love covers a multitude of sin. Thank God that He doesn’t view us in our sin the way we often choose to view our spouses in theirs.