In our last sermon in this continuing series dealing with the Sermon on the Mount, we reviewed Jesus’ discussion of the issue of murder and the related dynamics of how we are to relate to our fellow man.  Today we will look at what many feel is a very difficult and challenging teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and, therefore, one we need to spend some time with in order to arrive at a scriptural understanding of what Christ is actually teaching.   This teaching is presented by Jesus in two parts and we will begin by considering the first part and then move on to the second part.  The first part is found in Matthew 5:27-30.

       You have heard that it was said, `Do not commit adultery.'  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

       We know the sixth commandment prohibits adultery and we know that under the Old Covenant adultery was punishable by stoning to death. As we saw in the case of Christ’s discussion of murder, He gets right to the crux of the problem by showing, like in the case of murder, it all begins in the heart.  Like murder, adultery doesn’t just happen. It first takes place in the heart. It is pre-meditated.  In the case of adultery, it begins by looking lustfully at another person.  If such lustful thought is allowed to linger and grow, it can lead to the sin of adultery.  This is how all sin develops.  Apostle James made it very clear as to how sin develops as we previously discussed.

       James 1:14-15: One is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

       The entire focus of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount is what goes on in the heart.  All sin starts in the heart.  All sin starts with thought.  The Sermon on the Mount was directed toward getting rid of thoughts that lead to behavior that leads to sin and it must be in this context that we study what Christ taught in this Sermon.  When Jesus speaks of lustfully looking at a woman as having already committed adultery with her in one's heart he is simply showing where sinful behavior has its genesis and He proceeds to show the need to take drastic action to correct and adjust one's thoughts. 

       When Christ speaks of plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand, he is not teaching mutilation of the body.  It is not the physical eye or physical hand that is the problem. It is what goes on in the heart as a result of what the eye sees and the hand touches that can lead to sin and it is sin that can lead to serious consequences which Jesus characterizes by allusion to being thrown into the garbage dump on the east side of Jerusalem.  The Greek for hell in this passage is gahanna which was a place of waste disposal in first century Judea where the fire was always burning and where the dead bodies of criminals were disposed of. 

       Literally removing an eye or a hand would not solve the problem. You would still have the other eye and hand that could lead to sinful thoughts. How many appendages are you going to cut off?   Even if you cut out both eyes and cut off both hands you could still think sinful thoughts.  Christ was not teaching physical mutilation. Physical mutilation was actually condemned under the Old Covenant.  In Deuteronomy 14:1 the Israelites are instructed not to cut themselves.

       Jesus is using a physical analogy to teach that we are to take decisive action regarding the pulls of the sinful nature. Apostle Paul said in Romans 8:13 that “if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”  Both Jesus and Paul are teaching that it is by the Spirit of God that we put to death the misdeeds of the body.  We don’t do this by literally cutting away parts of the physical body.  We do this by exercising the Spirit of God in our thoughts which will lead to righteous behavior rather than behavior based on the sinful nature. Now we come to the more difficult part of Christ’s two-part teaching dealing with adultery.

       Matthew 5:31-32: It has been said, `Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

       The Greek word translated “marital unfaithfulness” in the NIV is translated fornication in the KJV, sexual immorality in the NKJV and unchastity in the RSV.  We will come back to this Greek word later.

       There has been much consternation within the Christian community over the years in response to this teaching of Jesus.  Some have concluded that He is teaching the only grounds for divorce is marital unfaithfulness and no divorce is valid if based on reasons outside of such grounds.  Therefore, any remarriage of someone who has divorced for reasons other than marital unfaithfulness is equivalent to committing adultery as the first marriage is considered still valid. Jesus again deals with this issue later in His ministry.

       Matthew 19:3-9:  Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" "Haven't you read," he replied, "that at the beginning the Creator `made them male and female,' and said, `For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." "Why then," they asked, "did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?" Jesus replied, "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

       Here we see the Pharisees asking Jesus whether it was lawful to divorce for any reason.  Jesus responds by reflecting on God’s creation of male and female for the purpose of becoming one flesh in marriage and that man should uphold that purpose.  Jesus goes on to teach that Moses permitted divorce, not commanded it as the Pharisees implied.  Moses permitted divorce because of hardness of heart but divorce is not what God intended. Jesus then repeats what He said in the Sermon on the Mount that only because of marital unfaithfulness was adultery justified. How are we to understand this teaching? 

       To begin with, Jesus makes it clear that God’s intention from the beginning was that men and women become one flesh or what we call marriage. In scriptural parlance sexual intercourse is what facilitated marriage.  If a man and women had sexual relations, they became one flesh which is equivalent to becoming married.  Apostle Paul shows this when he says in 1 Corinthians 6:16, “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh."  This is why sexual sin is so frequently condemned in Scripture.  After Paul made the statement about uniting with a prostitute, he says in verse 18, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.”

       So is Jesus really teaching that the only grounds for divorce is marital unfaithfulness and that any divorce involving other reasons can lead to adultery if the divorces remarry?  In both Matthew 5 and 19 we find it recorded that divorce was granted under the Old Covenant. Specific rules were established as to what a divorcee could and could not do.

       Deuteronomy 24:1-4: If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled.

       Here we see divorce as an accepted protocol for dealing with marriages that don’t work out. The reason given is the finding of something indecent.  The Hebrew word used here implies some type of sexual uncleanness. It is often translated into English as uncleanness or indecency.  We don’t know what uncleanness or indecency all included. Remember, under the Old Covenant, adultery was punishable by death.  An adulteress didn’t need to be given a certificate and be sent away. She would have been killed.  The very fact that we see regulations established for divorce and divorcees remarrying tell us that divorce was accepted for a variety of reasons over and above outright adultery.

       We do not see divorce condemned as such but instead see it being regulated.  There is no prohibition of divorce found under the Old Covenant, only regulation.  We also see divorce taking place for reasons other than marital unfaithfulness. Not only do we not find divorce prohibited under the Old Covenant, we see occasions where Israelite men, in repentance before God, putting away their foreign wives.  Under the Old Covenant it was not unlawful to marry foreign wives.

       Deuteronomy 21:10-11: When you go to war against your enemies and the LORD your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife.

       In the book of Ezra, we have an account of Israel putting away their foreign wives and even the children born to those marriages.

       Ezra 10:2-3: "We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law.

       Verse 11: Now make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives."      

       Here we find it was the will of God to separate from the foreign wives that the Israelite men had married and to do it according to the law which regulated such separations.  The problem here was not the marrying of foreign wives but marrying foreign wives that were practicing pagan abominations as Ezra, chapter 14 clearly points out. The point is that divorce was not only permitted but encouraged under these circumstances.

       We know that King David at one point put away foreign wives he had married. We find a situation recorded in Malachi, chapter 2, where men of Judah were marrying foreign women and apparently divorcing their Jewish wives.  Here it is recorded that God hates divorce.  The context, however, is a particular kind of divorce that God hated where men were replacing their Jewish wives with foreign wives which God didn’t take kindly too.

       With this brief background to divorce in the Old Testament, let’s now return to the New Testament passages dealing with this issue.  The Pharisees had asked Jesus whether it was lawful to put away your wife for every cause.  There had been much debate among the religious leaders in Israel as to the meaning of “indecent” in Deuteronomy 24:1 which states:

       If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house.....

       There were two schools of thought that had developed regarding this passage. The school of Rabbi Hillel taught that a man could divorce his wife for almost any reason. Not being able to have children, serving food on which the tithe had not been paid, appearing in public with disheveled hair, being a poor house keeper, not seasoning the soup properly and burning the dinner were all considered causes for divorce.  The school of Rabbi Shammai taught a more conservative approach, limiting divorce to major misconduct or sexual sins. 

       As Matthew points out, the Pharisees were testing Jesus with their question about putting away for any cause as the religious leaders themselves were divided between the Hillel and Shammai schools as to this issue.  They were trying to cause Jesus to take sides on this issue. Jesus bypasses the argument by virtually saying to the Pharisees that they were concentrating on exceptions to the law rather than on its original intent. Rather than focus on what is permitted, they should have been focusing on what God wanted in the first place. Instead of worrying about the minimum standard of godliness, the Pharisees should have been striving for the maximum, with a focus on purpose rather than legal loopholes.

       We saw under Old Covenant law that divorce was permissible. Jesus points out that Moses allowed divorce because of hardness of heart but indicates divorce was not God’s intention from the beginning and any divorce other than for martial unfaithfulness created a potential adulteress situation for those involved because such divorce wasn’t valid and the parties involved were still married. 

       The Greek translated as “martial unfaithfulness” in the NIV, “fornication” in the KJV, “sexual immorality” in the NKJV and “unchastity” in the RSV is the Greek word pornia.   This word appears to be restricted to any type of illicit sexually intercourse and included fornication, adultery and prostitution.  The word appears to be more restricted in usage than the Hebrew word we discussed earlier. 

       The question, therefore, is simply this.  Is Jesus teaching a strict prohibition against divorce for any reason other than what is inherent in the Greek pornia?  Is Jesus teaching that any divorce for reasons other than pornia is not considered divorce as it can cause the divorcees to commit adultery if they remarry?  

       Or, was Jesus engaging in the same kind or hyperbole that He uses elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount to get a point across. We already discussed the matter of plucking out an eye or cutting off a hand as Jesus' way of teaching how we must take decisive action regarding the pulls of the sinful nature.  Is Jesus doing the same thing here, knowing full well what the attitude of the religious leaders was regarding marriage and wanting to make a point about the sanctity of marriage.  What do we find in the rest of the New Testament regarding this issue?

       We know Apostle Paul was a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ. What do we find Paul teaching about marriage?  In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he deals with the issue of believers married to unbelievers and writes the following. 

       1 Corinthians 7:10-11: To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.

       Paul appears to be clearly teaching what Jesus taught regarding marriage.  Paul teaches that the ideal for a husband and wife is not to separate.  Paul adds, however, that if a wife does separate herself from her husband she must remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. Paul’s use of the word separate is equivalent to divorce as he goes on to say she must remain unmarried which implies she is now divorced.  Paul adds that a husband must not divorce his wife. Then Paul goes on to say:

       Verse 12-13:  To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.

       Verse 15:  But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. 

       The Greek word translated “bound” in this passage is douloo, a word which was used in Greek culture to describe a slave as either being bound or free.  If a slave was not bound, the slave was free to do what he wanted and was no longer tied in any way to his former master.  Paul’s use of this word indicates that he is saying that under the circumstances he is addressing, a marriage can be dissolved and there no longer remains a legal obligation between the parties involved and both are free to remarry.   A number of commentaries on this passage take this position because of Paul’s use of douloo

       Therefore, Paul appears to introduce another circumstance under which divorce is permissible with the overall goal being to live in peace.  The real issue here was not believers and unbelievers living together but living in peace.  Paul is saying that if your marriage is going to be in a constant state of conflict because of having different religious belief it is better that you divorce.  You are not bound under such circumstances.  Paul begins by reiterating the same ideal that Christ taught but then goes on to show that this ideal cannot always be met.  This was essentially the position extant under the Old Covenant when Moses permitted divorce because of people simply failing to get along.  As we have already covered, such divorce under the Old Covenant did allow for remarriage.

           1 Corinthians 7:27-28: Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you (NKJ).

       Here Paul speaks in terms of being bound to a wife and being loosed from a wife.  The terms bound and loosed certainly appear to be speaking of being married and then being divorced.  Paul advises if such a one marries, they are not sinning.  

       As pointed out in our discussion of Christ’s treatment of the issue of murder in my last sermon, we must be careful not to take too wooden of a view of the teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus taught the ideal behavior.  Jesus also taught mercy and grace toward those who fall short of the ideal.  There is no doubt that loving; stable marriages are what God intended from the beginning.  Everything possible should be done to avoid divorce.  Everything possible should be done to fix a broken marriage.  But there will be times when the dynamics of a situation are beyond fixing.  Both Jesus and Paul taught we are to live in peace.  Sometimes divorce is the only way to attain peace. 

       In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was addressing a readiness to divorce at the drop of a hat. Jesus had to make a strong statement to counter what was happening in the society of His day.  What is happening in our society is equally as serious relative to divorce.  The original purpose of God relative to marriage still stands and we need to make every effort to heed that purpose.