Don’t Forget that Jesus was Speaking to Pharisees

With this background in mind, we can better understand what Jesus was up against. Before Him stood a group of hypocritical religious teachers, many of whom, if not all, had divorced one or more times, and most likely because they had found more attractive mates. (I think it is no coincidence that Jesus’ words about divorce in the Sermon on the Mount directly follow His warnings regarding lust, also calling it a form of adultery.) Yet they were justifying themselves, claiming to have kept the Law of Moses.

Their question itself reveals their bias. They clearly believed one could divorce his wife for any cause at all. Jesus exposed their very flawed understanding of God’s intention in marriage by appealing to Moses’ words about marriage in Genesis chapter 2. God never intended that there be any divorces, much less divorce “for any cause,” yet the leaders of Israel were divorcing their wives like teenagers break up with their “steadies”!

I suspect that the Pharisees already knew Jesus’ stand on divorce, as He had stated it publicly before. And so they were ready with their rebuttal: “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matt. 19:7).

This question again reveals their bias. It is phrased in such a way that makes it sound as if Moses was commanding men to divorce their wives when they discovered an “indecency,” and requiring a proper divorce certificate. But as we know from reading Deuteronomy 24:1-4, that is not what Moses was saying at all. He was only regulating a woman’s third marriage, prohibiting her from remarrying her first husband.

Since Moses mentioned divorce, divorce must have been permitted for some reason. But notice how the verb Jesus used in His response, permitted , contrasts with the Pharisees’ choice of verbs: commanded . Moses permitted divorce; he never commanded it. And the reason Moses permitted divorce was because of the hardness of the hearts of the Israelites. That is, God permitted divorce as a merciful concession to people’s sinfulness. He knew that people would be unfaithful to their spouses. He knew there would be immoralities. He knew people’s hearts would be broken. And so He made allowance for divorce. It wasn’t what He had originally intended, but sin made it necessary.

Next, Jesus laid down God’s law to the Pharisees, defining what Moses’ “indecency” really was: “Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality , and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9, emphasis added). In God’s eyes, immorality is the only valid reason for a man to divorce his wife. And I can understand that. What could either a man or woman do that would be more offensive to his or her spouse? When one commits adultery or has an affair, he/she sends a brutal message. And certainly Jesus was not just referring to adultery when He used the word “immorality.” Surely passionate kissing and fondling someone else’s mate would be a very offensive immorality, as would the practice of viewing pornography, and other sexual perversions. Remember that Jesus equated lust with adultery during His Sermon on the Mount.

Let us not forget to whom Jesus was speaking–Pharisees who were divorcing their wives for any cause and quickly remarrying, but who would, God forbid, never commit adultery lest they break the seventh commandment. Jesus was telling them that they were only fooling themselves. What they were doing was no different than adultery. And that makes perfect sense. Anyone who is honest can see that a man who divorces his wife so that he can marry another woman is doing what an adulterer does, but under a guise of some legality.