A Commentary by John Stott

Matthew 5:31-37. A Christian righteousness: fidelity in marriage and honesty in speech (continued).

a). The Pharisees were preoccupied with the grounds for divorce; Jesus with the institution of marriage.

Their question was so framed as to draw Jesus on what he considered to be legitimate grounds for divorce. For what cause might a man divorce his wife? For one cause or for several cause or any cause?

Jesus’ reply was not a reply. He declined to answer their question. Instead, he asked a counter-question about their reading of Scripture. He referred them back to Genesis, both to the creation of mankind as male and female (chapter 1) and to the institution of marriage (chapter 2) by which a man leaves his parents and cleaves to his wife and the two become one. This biblical definition implies that marriage is both exclusive (‘a man…his wife’) and permanent (‘cleave’ or ‘be joined’ to his wife). It is these two aspects of marriage which Jesus selects for emphasis in his comments which follow (6). First, ‘So they are no longer two but one flesh,’ and secondly, ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’ Thus marriage, according to our Lord’s exposition of its origins, is a divine institution by which God makes permanently one two people who decisively and publicly leave their parents in order to form a new unit of society and then ‘become one flesh’.

b). The Pharisees called Moses’ provision for divorce a command; Jesus called it a concession to the hardness of human hearts.

The Pharisees responded to Jesus’ exposition of the institution of marriage and its permanence by asking: ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ (19:7)? Jesus’ quotation of scribal teaching in the Sermon on the Mount was similar: ‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce”’ (5:31).

Both these were garbled versions of the Mosaic provision, typical of the Pharisees’ disregard for what Scripture really said and implied. They laid their emphasis on the giving of a divorce certificate, as if this were the most important part of the Mosaic provision, and then referred to both the certificate and the divorce as ‘commands’ of Moses.

A careful reading of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 reveals something quite different. To begin with, the whole paragraph hinges on a long series of conditional clauses. This may be brought out in the following paraphrase: ‘After a man has married a wife, *if* he finds some indecency in her, and *if* he gives her a divorce-certificate and divorces her and she leaves, and *if* she marries again, and *if* her second husband gives her a divorce-certificate and divorces her, or *if* her second husband dies, *then* her first husband who divorced her is forbidden to remarry her…’ The thrust of the passage is to prohibit the remarriage of one’s own divorced partner. The reason for this regulation is obscure. It appears to be that if her ‘indecency’ had so ‘defiled’ her as to be a sufficient ground for divorce, it was also a sufficient reason for not taking her back. It may also have been intended to warn a husband against a hasty decision, because once made it could not be rescinded, and /or to protect the wife against exploitation. For our purposes here it is enough to observe that this prohibition is the only command in the whole passage; there is certainly no command to a husband to divorce his wife, nor even any encouragement to do so. All there is, instead, is a reference to certain necessary procedures *if* a divorce takes place; and therefore at the very most a reluctant permission is implied and a current practice is tolerated.

How, then, did Jesus respond to the Pharisees’ question about the regulation of Moses? He attributed it to the hardness of people’s hearts. In so doing he did not deny that the regulation was from God. He implied, however, that it was not a divine instruction, but only a divine concession to human weakness. It was for this reason that ‘Moses allowed you to divorce…’, he said (8). But then he immediately referred again to the original purpose of God, saying: ‘But from the beginning it was not so.’ Thus even the divine concession was in principle inconsistent with the divine instruction.

Tomorrow: Matthew 5:31-37. A Christian righteousness: fidelity in marriage and honesty in speech (continued).



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.