What Jesus Said about Divorce (Matt. 5:31-32)

Jesus spoke about divorce in Matthew 5:31-32. The saying is part of His Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, He dealt, among other issues, with the law. He did not abolish the divine law but pointed out its deeper meaning (Matt. 5:17). In the first two of the six so-called “antitheses,” Jesus addressed the Decalogue in an exemplary way, revealing its intended meaning (Matt. 5:21-30). However, in the next antitheses, He modified Mosaic regulations (Matt. 5:31-42), and finally rejected the unbiblical statement to hate one’s enemy (Matt. 5:43-48).

According to Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus took on the practice of giving one’s wife a certificate of divorce. The background is Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Even in the Old Testament, divorce was not a must, if some kind of indecency occurred, but it was an option only. Jesus highlights the principle of forgiving one another and, therefore, be reconciled to each other, a little later in the Sermon on the Mount, namely in the Lord’s Prayer and in His saying following directly this prayer (Matt. 6:12, 14-15).

According to the first part of Matthew 5:32, Jesus did away with the certificate of divorce. Divorce is not an option for Christ’s followers. Marriage is a lifelong union that even divorce does not change. Whoever divorces his wife is responsible for her committing adultery—probably by marrying again—or/and he himself becomes an adulterer. Writing a certificate of divorce, as done in the Old Testament, would not free the husband of his responsibility. If he would try to get rid of his wife through divorce, he still would remain bound to her before God: Whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

In the last part of verse 32, Jesus recognizes only one exception that would justify a divorce, and, even in this case, reconciliation is preferable (see Matt. 18:21−19:12). This case is sexual immorality (porneia), which among other things includes adultery and incest. If a legitimate divorce takes place—one that is based on porneia—remarriage seems to be possible for the person not previously involved in sexual activity outside the marriage. However, one would be seriously mistaken to focus on this exception instead of on Jesus’ general rule “no divorce at all.” This is Jesus’ new law. Beware of the hardness of heart (Matt. 19:8)!