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The Synoptics on 
Marriage, Divorce, Adultery

Matt 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.

Mark 10:
2  Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

3  "What did Moses command you?" he replied.

4  They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away."

5  "It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied.
6  "But at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female.'
7  'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife,
8  and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one.
9  Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

10  When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this.
11  He answered, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.
12  And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery."

Luke 16:18  Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery,
and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.


Divorce itself is not disallowed. For there are legitimate reasons for divorce. Even God got divorced.
Jer 3:8 "I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries."
However, it should not be for trivial reasons nor done casually. And it is in this sense that Paul writes in 1Cor 7:11 "And a husband must not divorce his wife." And in the verse following this he makes it somewhat optional in the case of those being married to unbelievers.


It is not divorce that constitutes adultery. Rather it is the remarriage - obviously to someone else - that consitutes adultery. Thus such remarriage is disallowed for Christians who have been divorced. They must remain unmarried or be reconciled to their spouse.
"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." 1Cor 7:10,11
This places limitations generally not accepted by many in the Christian community today, who interpret "freedom in Christ" as "freedom to do whatever I feel like doing".

What about the exception clause in Matt 5:32?

"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." (NIV)
The question is: What situations does the "marital unfaithfulness" (or "fornication") refer to?

What can we infer from the fact that Jesus doesn't elaborate upon this phrase, nor is this exception clause found in the Mark and Luke passages on divorce? (Though it is found again in Matt 19:3-9)  I would infer that the meaning is obvious enough as to not require elaboration. Notice that neither here nor in Matt 19 did the disciples ask further his meaning concerning this exception clause. The word being used is "porneia". Let's consider possibilities.

1. One idea is that one can divorce and remarry if their spouse commits any act of fornication. But this doesn't explain why the exception clause is missing in the Mark and Luke passages, nor is is mentioned in Paul's writings. In fact in 1Cor 7:2 Paul gives fornication not as a reason for divorce, but rather a reason for marriage. Furthermore if this is the interpretation, then the statement begs a number of questions, and as such the lack of elaboration makes such an interpretation suspect.
For example, does the legitimacy of remarriages hinge only upon whether or not a prior divorced had been on the grounds of fornication?

Let's say a man divorces his wife because she complains alot or some stupid reason. That is, the execption clause does not apply.  She goes on to marry someone else and can blame her first husband for causing her to become an adulteress. But if she's an adulteress that means that her second marriage is illegitimate and that she is really still married to her first husband. The first husband who had caused her to become an adulterous then feels he can now seek a second marriage because the exception clause has been fulfilled. But was it fulfilled if in fact the basis for the original divorce was not fornication? Who is the "innocent party"? And what is the status of the woman afterwards? Is her second marriage now legitimate?
Many questions arise which seem counter-intuitive to the brevity of the phrase, lack of any elaboration, and the fact it's missing elsewhere. Nonetheless even given this interpretation it can be proven that divorce itself does not nullify a marriage.

2. What if Jesus was just stating the obvious, simply reinforcing the rest of his statement. Consider his statement in Mark 10:11,12 "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery." But what if they are divorcing out of a situation which Jesus was just now characterizing as a marriage of fornication?  The exception clause could be interpreted to mean that regardless of the "reason" for divorce, the particular case of divorce that this exception clause is dealing with is a situation in which the marriage itself is illegitimate to begin with. In order words he's saying, "But I tell you that anyone who divorces his legitimate wife, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery." Thus he's saying that the principle doesn't apply when divorcing out of illegitimate marriages. An explanation as to why Mark and Luke don't have the exception clause could be that what constitutes "legitimate" can be logically deduced from the passage, and thus it would be just redundant to mention it. This interpretation most conveniently fits the passage without introducing unncessary complications.

3. Another possibility is that he was speaking of something in the Law of Moses which the Jews may have commonly understood as he was addressing them, but which may seem unclear to us Gentiles. Interesting that in the Matt 5:32 passage that it literally says, "except the word of fornication" - perhaps speaking of a Bible passage.

Here and Matt 19:3-9 Jesus was perhaps speaking with reference to the Mosaic Law, which is why the exception clause is not found in the Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18 passages as Matthew was written for Jews in particular and the exception clause is relevant to them, but not so much to Gentiles. What Matthew is referring to is to the time period in which one is pledged to be married, but not yet married. In the Mosaic law, this corresponds to Deut 22:13-21. Admittedly, the penalty was death and not divorce from the law, however the Jews generally interpreted this to be the allowable limit of the punishment rather than the necessary punishment. Such a case was true of Mary and Joseph. While they were only pledged to be married, Mary was found to be pregnant.

"This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly." Matt 1:18,19
So in applying the law in Deut 22, Joseph was considering divorce rather than death. Notice also that though only pledged to be married, Joseph is reckoned a husband. However, if he had divorced her at that time under those circumstances and married another, such would not constitute adultery. But had he gone ahead and married her and then divorced and remarried another, such would constitute adultery from Jesus' point of view.

However the weakness of this view is that it may appear too narrow and perhaps not to the point as it deals with a betrothal rather than a recognized consummated marriage. But then again perhaps that's why it's not mentioned in Mark or Luke. But another problem is that it implies that engagements cannot be broken up for any other reason than for fornication. But perhaps that was Jesus' position and such betrothals should be viewed essentially as binding as marriage vows, but the fornication exception could be understandable in that the marriage was not consummated. This would place bethrothal in a special case or category, which may explain why it's an exception, and being a minor exception, why it's not mentioned elsewhere.

Furthermore, while even the Gentile culture did practice engagements, yet the Jewish bethrothal may have been more serious. I perceive it certainly was more serious than what is called "engagement" in modern Western culture, where there is no such thing as a "divorce" from an engagement.


Matt 19:
10  The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry."
11  Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.
12  For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it."

There are those who would misinterpret this last phrase Jesus said to apply to the idea of remarriage after divorce being adultery, which he spoke of just prior to this as you can read above. But the context clearly indicates that he is not referring to that, but rather referring to the fact that what the disciples said is true - that it is better not to marry.

And this is also affirmed by the Apostle Paul - "It is good for a man not to marry." 1Cor 7:1 And "I wish that all men were as I am. (single) But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that." 1Cor 7:7 Here he views singleness not as a burden but as a gift.

And he also gives the advice, "Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy.  Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are." 1Cor 7:25,26 The "present crisis" (which also can be translated "present necessity")  is simply the fulfilling of work of the ministry in preparation for the return of Christ. And he goes on to say, "But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. What I mean, brothers, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none." 1Cor 7:28,29

And also he says, "I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs-- how he can please the Lord.  But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world-- how he can please his wife-- and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world-- how she can please her husband.  I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord." 1Cor 7:32-35

And finally, "So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better. A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.  In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is-- and I think that I too have the Spirit of God." 1Cor 7:38-40

Why Singleness is Superior according to the Bible?

Because we've got a job to do and the time is short. And thus we shouldn't waste our time and devotion on a marriage relationship. Of course those who are married are obligated to fulfill their marital responsibilities, just as those who have children are responsible for them. But the single should not view marriage as necessary, nor be coerced into marriage by those who reckon singleness with a contemptuous attitude.

Marriage vs. Ministry

On the other hand, although marriage incurs responsiblity, the priority that the Bible advocates, contrary to much of modern evangelical thought, is to put Ministry above Marriage.
 And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you," There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's,  But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life." Mark 10:29,30 (KJV)
Many I have met in the Christian community today simply excuse themselves from doing any ministry simply because they are married or because they have children. I would characterize the Christian community as generally being lazy. Many avoid the matters of the kingdom by busying themselves with unncessary secular things. But Paul writes to Timothy, "No one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs-- he wants to please his commanding officer." 2Ti 2:4 But many Christian simply don't even view themselves as soldiers of Christ. They go to church on Sunday, sing some songs, listen to a lecture and go home feeling they've fulfilled their spiritual responsiblities for the week. While they may pay other people to do the work of the ministry for them, they do not see themselves as being responsible for doing the ministry. Many such people go to church not to serve but to be served. They go not meet other people's needs, but simply to meet their own needs. When will such Christians get out of the diaper stage and get to work! And institutional leaders are not to be held blameless either. For many such people also promote this same attitude by treating their congregation like a bunch of immature stupid sheep incapable of doing anything but the most menial tasks, rather than striving to accomplish the objective of Ephesians 4, which ends: "From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." Eph 4:16 But today only some do the work, while most do practically nothing. For the purpose of the church should be "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." Eph 4:12-15

Lust and Adultery

Matt 5:28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Adultery does not nullify a marriage but as in God's case in Jeremiah 3:8 it can be a basis for divorce. However the Bible seems to indicate that although the lust of Matt 5:28 is in the same category of adultery, yet God seems to treat it a bit differently than its more overt form of sexual intercourse. For in the Law of Moses, the more overt form was punished by death, whereas there was no penalty under the Law for looking at a woman lustfully. However it was well understood in principle and practice according to the Bible that one naturally followed the other. But there are places even in the Old Testament that recognized the sinfulness of sexual lust itself.

"I have made a covenant with my eyes; Why then should I look upon a young woman?" Job 31:1
"If my heart has been enticed by a woman, or if I have lurked at my neighbor's door, then may my wife grind another man's grain, and may other men sleep with her.  For that would have been shameful, a sin to be judged.  It is a fire that burns to Destruction; it would have uprooted my harvest." Job 31:9-12

Marriage in the Afterlife?

Matt 22:30  At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.

Luke 20:34,35
Jesus replied, "The people of this age marry and are given in marriage.  But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God's children, since they are children of the resurrection.

Marriage has to do with this life. When you really get down to it, people get married to have sexual relations. It's a very physical thing. However it is also a symbol or shadow of something else. For God created marriage to be a symbol of the relationship between Christ and the Church.

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery-- but I am talking about Christ and the church. Eph 5:31,32

NIV used in comments
The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources Jan 29,2022