Remaining faithful in marriage - Matthew 5:31-32

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the Riverside Church service on 26th July 2015.

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Remaining faithful in marriage

Matthew 5:31-32


A man in Dubai divorced his wife in 2001 by sending her a text message on her phone. She had failed to turned up on time to cook his tea, so he texted her: “You’re late. I divorce you.” This was the third time he’d told her he would divorce her and according to Islamic law if a man tells his wife “I divorce you” three times, this is all that is needed: the wife is legally divorced when she receives that third message. The woman in Dubai could not believe that she could be divorced by a text message so she took it to the Muslim court, but the court upheld the man’s right. Any Muslim man is allowed to divorce his wife in this way without needing to show that she has done anything wrong.

Jewish men in the time of Jesus were also able to get a divorce if they wanted to without needing to cite any grounds. Instead of saying ‘I divorce you’ three times, all a Jewish man had to write out was a divorce certificate, give it to his wife and as soon as she received it, she was legally divorced.

Although the divorce certificate is certainly part of the law of Moses in Deuteronomy 24.1, this groundless divorce for ‘men-only’ did not become available until about the time of Jesus’ birth.

This new type of divorce was invented by a Rabbi called Hillel (who lived a few decades before Jesus) and was called the ‘Any Cause’ divorce after the phrase which inspired it in Deuteronomy 24.1 where a man divorced his wife for “a cause of sexual immorality”.

Hillel therefore thought that two types of divorce were taught in Deuteronomy 24.1: one for ‘Sexual Immorality’ (i.e. adultery) and one for ‘Any Cause’.

The Rabbis who followed in the school of Hillel came to two main conclusions about the new ‘Any Cause’ form of divorce. Firstly, they concluded that an ‘Any Cause’ divorce could only be carried out by men (because the example case in Deuteronomy 24.1 involves a man who divorces his wife). Secondly, they said that it could be used for any cause – such as your wife burning a meal. Although this was theoretically based on some kind of fault, this fault could be such a small thing that it was, in effect, a groundless divorce.

The ‘Any Cause’ type of divorce soon became very popular – especially because you didn’t need any proof and you didn’t have to present your case in court. All you needed to do to carry out an ‘Any Cause’ divorce was write out a divorce certificate and give it to your wife.

The only times when the ‘Any Cause’ divorce was not more beneficial for the man were those few occasions when he could prove that his wife had been unfaithful – and especially when this unfaithfulness became public knowledge. He could get his revenge on his wife by taking her to court to obtain a divorce on the Old Testament ground of unfaithfulness. There was also a financial advantage for the man in this situation because if he could prove that his wife was unfaithful, he did not have to give her the marriage inheritance which he had promised to her when they married.

Joseph almost used this form of divorce in Matthew chapter 1. He did not want to put Mary through the disgrace of a public trial so he decided to use the quiet ‘Any Cause’ divorce because it did not require any proof of wrong-doing.

Not all Rabbis followed this interpretation of Deuteronomy 24. The disciples of Shammai believed Deuteronomy 24 only referred to sexual immorality. They were against this  ‘Any Cause’ divorce practice. They wanted to restrict the grounds of divorce to biblical grounds. They believed these were found not just in Deut 24 but also in Exodus 21:10-11. They believed Deu 24 referred to adultery and Exodus 21 spoke of different forms of abuse within marriage.

Not surprisingly, the common people preferred Hillel’s interpretation.

Why have all told you this? Jesus lived and taught in this context. And his words on marriage and divorce make most sense when understand in the light of this 1st century discussion about the ground for divorce.

Jesus also speaks about this topic in Matthew 19, where he was asked directly what his view was. But for today I’m going to focus on what Jesus says to his gathered disciples.

At this point no one has asked him what he thought. Jesus has brought it up himself. But he is certainly aware of the popular discussion that was raging in his time about this key issue.

So let’s try and understand what he had to say. Look at verse 31. Read verse 31.

It has been said - by whom? By people living in Jesus’ day. Remember he is contrasting other alternative teaching with his own.

What are they saying? They are alluding to Deuteronomy 24. What interpretation are they giving it? The emphasis is on ensuring the woman gets a certificate. There is not reason given. This insight allows us to see that Jesus is about to engage with the ‘Any Cause’ divorce culture.

The stakes are huge. All ears would be listening to what Jesus said next. Verse 32. Read verse 32.

It is easy to misunderstand what Jesus says here.  We do this when we think at this point Jesus is giving the only grounds for a legitimate divorce and so a remarriage, if that was desired. All legitimate divorce opened up the potential for remarriage.

But we need to remember that what Jesus is actually doing is engaging with the meaning of Deuteronomy 24:1. He makes it clear that Rabbi Hillel and the whole ‘Any Cause’ divorces were not aligned with God’s word. The ground for divorce given in Deuteronomy 24:1 was adultery not adultery plus anything else.

So when Jesus says, “anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery” he has his sights set on the ‘Any Cause’ divorce people. He is saying that those who were practicing ‘Any Cause’ divorce on the basis of Deuteronomy 24 were not properly divorced.

This explains why subsequent remarriages should be regarded as adulteress - because the first marriage had not been legitimately ended.

However, we must be careful not to say that Jesus is making a universal statement about what the whole of scripture says about the grounds for divorce.

In Matthew 5 and also in Matthew 19 he is focusing on the true meaning of Deuteronomy 24 and, in particular, he is seeking to stop people using the ‘Any Cause’ method of divorce.

However, the Bible does have two other grounds of legitimate divorce.

• Abandonment - see 1 Corinthians 7
• Abuse - See Exodus 21:10-11

In this situations people have permission to divorce but are not commanded to divorce.

Forgiveness can be granted. Reconciliation can be achieved. But if this is not to be then permission is given by God for a divorce.

Divorces are not happy occasions. We know all sorts of reasons why. All sorts of people have been hurt until this point and the hurt and mess certainly continues after the marriage has officially ended.

But another reason divorces are never happy occasions is because of how these marriages fail to show the commitment of Jesus to his church.
In Ephesians 5 we’re told that marriage is modelled on Jesus’ relationship with the church. Human marriages are supposed to show the world something of the fidelity of Jesus.

Marriage as an illustration of the gospel benefits. All I have is yours.

So we should feel sorrow when divorces occur.

But although we should be saddened we should not be surprised. What we find is that the bible makes provision for this broken relationships.

I find the Bible's teaching in this area to be eminently sensible and liveable in our broken world.

Any clause divorces trivialise relationships and never motivate people to try for a long-term solution. But divorce only on the grounds of adultery doesn’t seem that realistic in a world where it is two sinners who get married.

The Bible gets it exactly right - not too many grounds and not too few. But three when a spouse is still living.

• Adultery
• Abandonment
• Abuse


Let me end with a few questions.


First, can we read the Bible for ourselves and come to the right conclusion or do we need outside information to help us?
What about Sola Scriptura? What is that? Everything which is necessary for salvation can be found by a plain reading of Scripture – as we see in the definition in the Westminster Confession (1646):

“The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture… All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all, yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them…”


Second, what if you have divorced on biblical grounds? What now? You could get remarried to a believer. You may choose to say single for the gospel.


Third, what if you have divorced on non-biblical grounds? What now? Are you remarried? Stay as you are. Are you single? Stay as you are.


Fourth, are you struggling? Get help.


Fifth, do you know people who are married? Pray for them to persevere in their commitment to their vows.


Particularly pray for those within the church. The bible does have much to say about singleness as well.
But do pray for the married couples. Their perseverance and their ability to believe that the Bible words are good.

Let’s pray.

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