Jesus was explaining to the crowd who listened to His great sermon on the mount how their righteousness must exceed that of the Scribe and Pharisees if they are to enter the kingdom of heaven. His first two points related to what they had learned about the commands not to murder and what they had learned about the command not to commit adultery. Each time he took them behind the command to the heart that led to the sin. Murder was tied to anger and adultery to lust.
His third point of how we must exceed these religious teachers of that day was about divorce. “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 sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Unlike the first two this one isn’t tied to one of the Ten Commandments. But it is tied to one of the major discussions that was going on among the religious leaders of the day. Two major schools of the rabbi’s differed completely on the topic. Both of the schools of thought went back to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 as the basis for their thinking. One school of thought that the teaching of Moses about if something unclean was found in a partner in marriage then the man could divorce her, give her a certificate of divorce so she could go and become another man’s wife and he could be free to marry someone else, was referring to the uncleanness of sexual immorality. They thus taught that the only legitimate reason for a divorce that automatically led to remarriage was if there had been sexual immorality in the marriage and the man could under those circumstances put away his wife. The fact that Jesus later said of this command of Moses that it was given because of the hardness of their hearts likely means that the reason Moses gave the command was that hard hearted men were putting away their wives without any certificate of divorce meaning they couldn’t marry anyone else and led them to no way to provide for themselves or their children except prostitution. God therefore gave the command to give her the certificate of divorce so she could become another man’s wife.
The other school of thought was totally different. It was that uncleanness in a partner means anything that the man didn’t like. The illustration was used that if a wife burned the bread for a man’s breakfast that was sufficient an uncleanness to put her away and marry someone else. In Matthew 19 the questioners of Jesus were attempting to get him to take one of the sides in the argument so he would alienate himself from all the ones who agreed with the other school of thought. Notice when Moses gave the original command he went on to tell them that if a man put away his wife and gave her the certificate of divorce and she married someone else, even if that new husband put her away, the first husband could not take her back. It was said to be an abomination to God for him to take her back as his wife after she had been the wife of another man.
Again, Jesus pulled back behind the discussion of a certificate of divorce or some legal proceeding on the point. I believe that this discussion is closely tied to the discussion on adultery. His point was that when one lust for a woman other than his wife and commits adultery in his heart, it leads to divorcing one’s wife to go to the other woman. They may even have thought that the adultery in the heart gave the right to divorce one’s wife. But Jesus turned the whole thing on the man. Unless your wife has been sexually immoral, if you put her away, whether you give her a certificate or not, you have treated her like an adulteress and thus commit adultery against her. An innocent wife put away, doesn’t become an adulteress, but is being treated like one by the hard heartedness of her husband who puts her away like she had committed sexual immorality.
But what about the statement that anyone who marries her commits adultery? Remember his point to the man was not to put away an innocent wife at all and if you do you are sinning against her. The only one he is to put away is the one who is guilty of sexual immorality. The point then is that one put away for sexual immorality who then goes and marries the one who was committing sexual immorality with her becomes an adulterer in the process. It is not at all saying that an innocent wife put away by a heartless husband and married later to someone who loves her will commit adultery in any sense of the word.
Jesus point is that sexual immorality destroys a marriage. It violates the one flesh covenant we make with each other at marriage. Thus one who is guilty of such immoral behavior is subject to divorce from their partner and they may innocently go to marry someone else. But if a man treats a woman who is innocent of immoral behavior like she had committed adultery then he is committing adultery against her.
Understand that Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience and that the Jews of the time didn’t believe women had the right to divorce their husbands at all. It was only the men that had such a right. Later Mark who wrote to the Romans, would record Jesus teaching on this topic and picture him applying it to both men and woman. The application to our own time would be equally true whether man or woman, in that marriage is a covenant we make with each other and with God. If we simply set aside such a covenant we sin against the Lord.
But what if one who has been guilty of mistreating their partner or of sexual immorality decides to repent of their sin and turn back to God, can they do so, or is this some permanent sin that can’t be forgiven? This sin, like all other sins, can be repented of and one can be totally forgiven and given new life in Jesus. In I Corinthians 6:9-11 Paul wrote, “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Chris and by the Spirit of our God.” Forgiveness is so important to God that he paid the price of sin with the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. His blood is powerful enough to cleanse any sin. So, anyone, no matter what they have done in the past can, through faith turn to God in repentance and be forgiven of their wrongs.