A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5:31-37. c). The Pharisees regarded divorce lightly; Jesus took it so seriously that, with only one exception, he called all remarriage after divorce adultery (continued).

What then did Jesus teach? N.B.Stonehouse offers a good paraphrase of the first part of the antithesis in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Ye have heard of the appeal of Jewish teachers to Deuteronomy 24:1 in the interest of substantiating a policy which permits husbands freely at their own pleasure to divorce their wives – simply by providing them with a duly attested document of the transaction.’ ‘But I say to you,’ Jesus continued, that such irresponsible behaviour on the part of a husband will lead him and his wife and their second partners into unions which are not marriage but adultery. To this general principle there is one exception. The only situation in which divorce and remarriage are possible without breaking the seventh commandment is when it has already been broken by some serious sexual sin. In this case, and in this case only, Jesus seems to have taught that divorce was permissible, or at least that it could be obtained without the innocent party contracting the further stigma of adultery. The modern tendency of Western countries to frame legislation for divorce on the basis rather of the ‘irretrievable breakdown’ or ‘death’ of a marriage than of a ‘matrimonial offence’ may make for better and juster law; it cannot be said to be compatible with the teaching of Jesus.

Nevertheless, the matter cannot be left there. For this reluctant permission of Jesus must still be seen for what it is, namely a continued accommodation to the hardness of human hearts. In addition, it must always be read both in its immediate context (Christ’s emphatic endorsement of the permanence of marriage in God’s purpose) and also in the wider context of the Sermon on the Mount and of the whole Bible which proclaim a gospel of reconciliation. Is it not of great significance that the Divine Lover was willing to woo back even his adulterous wife, Israel? (Cf. Je.2:1; 3:1; 4:1; Ho.2:1-23). So one must never begin a discussion on this subject by enquiring about the legitimacy of divorce. To be preoccupied with the grounds for divorce is to be guilty of the very pharisaism which Jesus condemned. His whole emphasis in debating with the rabbis was positive, namely on God’s original institution of marriage as an exclusive and permanent relationship, on God’s ‘yoking’ of two people into a union which man must not break, and (one might add) on his call to his followers to love and forgive one another, and to be peacemakers in every situation of strife and discord. Chrysostom justly linked this passage with the beatitudes and commented in his homily on it: ‘For he that is meek, and a peacemaker, and poor in spirit, and merciful, how shall he cast out his wife? He that is used to reconcile others, how shall he be at variance with her that is his own? From this divine ideal, purpose and call, divorce can be seen only as a tragic declension.

So speaking personally as a Christian pastor, whenever somebody asks to speak with me about divorce, I have now for some years steadfastly refused to do so. I made the rule never to speak with anybody about divorce, until I have first spoken with him (or her) about two other subjects, namely marriage and reconciliation. Sometimes a discussion on these topics makes a discussion of the other unnecessary. At the very least, it is only when a person has understood and accepted God’s view of marriage and God’s call to reconciliation that a possible context has been created within which one may regretfully go on to talk about divorce. This principle of pastoral priorities is, I believe, consistent with the teaching of Jesus.

Tomorrow: Matthew 5:33. Honesty in speech.

The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.