Originally published by ChurchWithoutWallsInternational.org.
Last week I shared Israel’s history concerning the law of divorce, how it was used and misused from Moses to Malachi. When God invented marriage He also had to invent a way out so that flawed people in a sinful world might start anew, which is what the Deuteronomy 24: 1-4 divorce law provides.
400 years after Malachi, in the time of Jesus
God sent forth His son in the fullness of time, and young Jesus in the 1st century AD would have learned all that I shared last week and much more. Most boys of His time had to memorize the 5 Books of Moses and be able to recite them by age 5 or 6 (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
That is quite a kindergarten class! So He knew God’s divorce law, knew Israel’s history of unfaithfulness to (Him), knew how (He) had divorced Israel, knew how the priests of Malachi’s time abused the law of divorce (He) had given them. He knew its intended purpose because He gave it!
Houses of Hillel and Shammai
During the early part of the first century two schools of thought emerged. One was the ‘House of Hillel’ and the other was the ‘House of Shammai’. Rabbi Hillel died about the year 10AD and perhaps he knew the boy Jesus if we think Jesus was born in 4BC and at 12 years old visited the temple – about 2-3 years before Hillel died. We don’t know. But Rabbi Shammai lived to about the year 30AD, and may very well have known Jesus.
They were both part of the Jewish leaders who added some 800 of their own laws onto the 613 laws of Moses, and it was those 800 Jesus debated the leaders about. As it pertains to the Israeli divorce law, Hillel taught the ‘uncleanness’ a man might find in his wife could include a burnt meal she cooked for him. That’s right folks, Hillel taught if the wife burns a meal it was grounds for divorce.
Shammai however taught God’s intent was for marriage to be life-long, therefore divorce had to be for something more serious like fornication, abuse, abandonment, neglect, or other serious issue. These were the ‘hot’ topics in Jesus’ day, and that brings us to Jesus’ statements about marriage and divorce. Now we have the history, now we have the context – at least in brief.
The difference between adultery and fornication according to Jesus
In Matthew 5: 21-22 Jesus equated anger without a cause with murder, stating if a man is angry with his brother without cause, he is in danger of hell. That equates the unjust anger with the act. It equates the imagination of hatred with murder.
In 5: 28-32 Jesus does the same thing concerning the thought of sex. To look on a woman with lust is to commit adultery. That is where we need to pause. Our definition of adultery is often different from His definition of adultery, and that leads to confusion when trying to understand His words. Understand what Jesus said: Looking on a woman with lust equals the act. Hating your someone without cause is the same as the act of murder. Jesus is dealing with the heart and imaginations of people.
v28: “Whoever looks on a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” After that He said to ‘pluck out’ the eye – the method by which lust is demonstrated, and ‘cut off your right hand’ – the hand represents taking action on the lust of the eye. So He is saying deal with the lust, deal with the imagination of the plans to consummate the lust with that other person. Deal with it. Cut off your thoughts, your imagination, think on other things.
In this context, adultery is the act of a married person imagining sex with someone other than their spouse. Adultery is the lust, the imagination, the fantasy. Jesus said cut off the lust of the eye and thought of action before you actually do the deed.
Adultery vs fornication
“Therefore if a man divorces his wife except for fornication, he is guilty of adultery and causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries her is committing adultery. v32
Because adultery is the imagination of an affair, Jesus in this verse is classifying a marriage born of lust as adulterous. He was classifying a marriage founded upon lust in the same way we might say ‘He married her for her money’ or ‘She married him for political reasons’. Jesus said a marriage founded upon lust that caused the breakup of a previous marriage, is founded upon adultery and the two people are in adultery – an imagination with each other and fantasy of lust.
This does not contradict the Lord’s own law of divorce, but builds on it revealing original intent for marriage to be free from lust and wandering eyes. Many churches and even denominations not understanding that the law of Moses already allowed for a man or woman to remarry, and Jesus would not contradict the very law that He Himself gave Moses, think Jesus is saying there is no cause for divorce at all except for fornication.
That’s not what He said here. There is no ‘stand alone’ verse, but every verse is balanced in context with other verses. He said if a man gets caught up in lust and adultery and leaves his wife for that reason, his next marriage is therefore an adulterous one – founded upon lust and fantasy.
Why did He give the law of divorce in the first place?
In Matthew 19: 3-9 Jesus is asked: “Is it legal to divorce a wife for any reason?” As I shared about the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, this was a much debated topic. Because of the two schools of thought, they tried to trap Jesus between opinions of the two houses.
But Jesus side-stepped the issue by going to the beginning in v4-6: “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning made them male and female…that they may leave their families to cling to one another and become one flesh. What God has put together let no man separate.”
In other words in answer to their question if they could divorce for any reason, Jesus said no. The highest and best is that they remain one all their lives. “What God has put together let not man separate.”
Divorce given in case one spouse hardens their heart against the other
But they persisted, asking if that was the original intent when they did God provide for a divorce? So Jesus in v8 went beyond the written law to the heart of the law. “Moses (the law) gave the divorce law because of the hardness of your hearts. But from the beginning it was not so.”
Jesus here reveals the true intent behind the law of divorce: It was given due to the hardening of one spouse’s heart towards the other. Under that condition, the hardness of heart, the divorce law was given. Jesus justified the House of Shammai who said divorce was only for serious reasons like fornication, abuse, abandonment and such – indicating he understood it was granted for situations where one spouse hardened their heart against the other.
This is why Paul would later write in I Corinthians 7: 15 that if a believing spouse is married to an unbeliever who wants a divorce, let them go. That indicates that unbeliever had hardened their heart against their spouse, and Paul said, let them go.
The Word and Spirit agree
If we believe the Holy Spirit is doing something in the world, then we will find it in the Word. If not, then its not the Holy Spirit. If we believe something is in the Word, then we’ll see the Holy Spirit agreeing with that understanding through the centuries in the body of Christ, to our day.
When it comes to divorce and what I stated above as what I believe the Word says, let me ask this of those reading this who have been married, divorced, and maybe remarried: Is the Lord still with you as He was before? Has He ever treated you like a second class citizen of the kingdom by withholding His Spirit from you? (Or has the church and church culture made you feel that way?)
So if what I have shared is balanced, let me ask those who are divorced, or divorced and remarried: Is the Holy Spirit still with you? Still blessing you? If the answer is yes, then this balanced understanding of the Word is confirmed by the Holy Spirit in your life.
There are some who understand the Word differently, believing a person who divorced cannot remarry under any circumstances. Yet God promises to remarry Israel in the New Covenant. Can’t we follow His example? Isn’t God Spirit with you and blessing you proof He does not think of you as a 2nd class child of His? Did He show grace and His presence while you were going through the divorce? Isn’t He with you now? Then rest. He is at peace with you.
What about leadership being ‘the husband of one wife’, from I Timothy 3: 12?
“Let the deacons (servants/ministers) be the husband of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well.”
From this verse some denominations and teachers say if a man has been divorced he (or she) cannot be in leadership. But taking that logic to its completion means deacons had to be married, so Paul would be disqualified as a deacon because he was single. See how that logic falls apart?
What Paul was talking about was polygamy, which was common in that day. What shocks many in the west is to learn that it is still an issue today in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and India in particular. Quite often we in cwowi deal with those who have a wife from an arranged marriage made when they were children, as well as a woman they fell in love with as an adult. Sometimes the arranged marriage can be annulled by paying the bride’s family a large amount so they save face and the contract of marriage is dissolved.
I could tell you of former Muslims who have come to the Lord in recent years that include one with 17 wives the last I heard, and another very wealthy man in the Mid-east with over 35 wives. I could tell you of arranged marriages from India and parts of Africa, some that have worked well, others that have not.
But these issues of today are are relevant as they were in Paul’s time, when he said if a married man wants to enter into leadership, he has to just have one wife. Again, to this the Word and Spirit agree, I see it almost monthly here in our network. Hey folks, we’re just to catch the fish, God is the one to clean them, lol.
I hope the reader sees God’s grace and mercy in this subject, in life’s unexpected tragedies, like divorce. His highest and best was as Jesus said, that once joined together they remain so for life. But when He gave marriage He also had to provide a way of escape. To create marriage for flawed human beings, He also had to make a way of escape.
In I Corinthians 10: 13 it says God will not allow us to be tested above what we are able to handle, and will when that trial comes in, make a way of escape that we may endure. Sometimes as Jesus taught, when one spouse becomes hardened against the other and there is no turning back, divorce is God’s way of escape. God gave it for He is love, that there may a fresh start, as the Mosaic law says. (Which Jesus could not and did not contradict)
Nothing Jesus said contradicted the law of Moses which He as Christ, gave to Moses. Remember that. Jesus does not contradict Himself, and the NT is built upon the Old. A divorced couple is free to remarry the law of Moses says. Jesus said it wasn’t the original intent, but provided due to hard hearts. Find your peace in that. Rest in that.
if you have had to use God’s ‘escape’ in a failed marriage, know that as Christ was in you then, He is in you now. Nothing diminished, nothing lessened, no spiritual cloud over your head marking you as ‘unclean’. The proof is His continued graciousness to you, His continued presence in your life, in your heart, and no one can come against that.
Sorry this one was so long, it is a big subject. If you don’t agree, no problem, let us continue fellowship around what and on Who we do agree. He accepts both of us, but this is balance applicable in ‘real life’, and confirmed by His Spirit in our lives. New subject of ‘Questions I get asked’ next week.
Until then, blessings,
Author: John Fenn
John Fenn is the founder of The Church Without Walls International and author of “Pursuing the Seasons of God” and ‘Return of the First Church’. John graduated from Rhema Bible Training Center in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma in 1980. Known for teaching with anointing and by revelation and flowing with the gifts of the Spirit, his heart’s desire is to make known the ways of the Father God.