Under the New Covenant, Jesus and some of the New Testament writers compare God’s relationship with his Church to a marriage covenant as well.
That brings us to the New Testament, and it doesn’t take long for our first mention of divorce here in the book of Matthew. It’s actually part of the story of how Jesus came to be born. When Joseph finds out Mary is pregnant and that the baby wasn’t his, here’s what Matthew tells us:
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.
Did you catch that? Joseph was going to divorce her quietly because he was righteous. Divorce could potentially be a “righteous” choice in this circumstance. Try to get your head around that for a moment. It took a visit from an angel not to keep Joseph from doing something wrong and sinful, but to reveal to him why he should do something even better.
After that we get to the words of Jesus, and it is here where things that previously seemed rather palpable start getting really muddled — because at first glance, and taken without context, it appears like divorce is one issue where the new covenant provides stricter rules rather than more freedom and grace.
Jesus actually only taught on divorce twice (that we have recorded) in his entire ministry. The first comes from his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, and the second is a reaction to a group of Pharisees attempting to trick him. That in and of itself should tell us something: Jesus had much bigger fish to fry than solving the issue of divorce (even though divorce was a huge rabbinical debate during his time on earth, as we will see). Bigger fish like the Kingdom, which will also play a role in our discussion.
But Jesus does teach on divorce, and here’s what he had to say during his Sermon on the Mount:
“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.
Woah. Where did that come from? Here Jesus references that Deuteronomy 24 passage we talked about yesterday, but then throws his own spin on it. Some background as to what’s going on here will be useful.
In the Jewish faith, there were respected teachers who were called rabbis (during Jesus’ time on earth, there was no “office” of Rabbi, it was a title earned by respect). These rabbis would travel around Israel teaching their yoke – their interpretation of the Law. Every once in a great while, a rabbi would come around whose teachings carried more weight, or seemed to have a special and unique authority – these rabbis were said to have taught with shmikah
Jesus was identified early in his ministry as one of these rabbis with authority (Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22; Luke 4:32).
Rabbis that taught with shmikah oftentimes utilized a formula in their teachings like the one we see in the passage above. They would start by quoting what someone else had said or written (“you have heard it said” or “it has been said”) and then, with that shmikah, explain a new interpretation of God’s heart (“but I tell you”). In this way, they established and explained their yoke more fully – that which they intended their disciples to take up, learn, and live out.
Jesus would later describe his particular yoke as being easy, and his burden light (Matthew 11:29-30). He was, of course, describing this in a context where the current religious leaders were placing more and more burdens and rules and regulations on the people. His goal as a rabbi was to set people free (Luke 4:18; John 8:32-36), bring them life (John 10:10), and to remove the heavy load of religious regulations.
Why, then, does his teaching here seem to contradict everything he was about? Why take a practice – divorce – that was not condemned under Jewish law and add it to a checklist of moral behavioral regulations? At first glance, it seems like Jesus is taking a page out of the Pharisees’ playbook here.
But a closer look in context reveals something completely different. Divorce is not the only subject Jesus taught on in this way. Surrounding this teaching on divorce are similar thoughts from Jesus on adultery, murder, revenge, and taking oaths, among other subjects. And they all follow this pattern: you’ve heard it said don’t commit adultery, but I tell you even if you lust after a woman in your heart you’ve committed adultery. You’ve heard it said do not murder, but I tell you, even if you hate someone you’re guilty of murder. You’ve heard it said don’t break your oaths, but I tell you don’t even make any oaths.
One after the other here, Jesus takes individual topics and makes it even more difficult to live up to God’s standards. What in the world is going on here?
The sentence immediately preceding all these confusing shmikah statements gives us an incredible clue as to what Jesus was doing here:
For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Woah. That’s a heavy-duty statement there. Taken at face value, we might as well give up now. But let’s review: Jesus came to offer freedom from regulations, abundant life, and peace through a New Covenant that is based on grace and God “remembering our sins no more”.
Viewed through the lens of the totality of Scripture then, what Jesus is doing through this series of shmikah teachings is not simply giving us more rules to follow; rather he is doing an amazing job of pointing people to God’s amazing grace. Jesus is showing us that simple behavior modifications will never be enough to satisfy God’s standards, because our problem – humanity’s problem – runs infinitely deeper than that.
You haven’t murdered anyone? Great. But that hatred in your heart is born from the same sinful desire as the act of murder. You haven’t cheated on your spouse? Good for you. But that lust draws water from the same spring. You’ve followed the law in giving your wife a certificate of divorce? Wonderful. But the act of divorce causes broken relationships that grieve the heart of God.
Through the whole teaching, people must have been sitting there thinking, “Okay, I thought this might have been possible before, but there is just no way I can do this now.” And that’s exactly the point to which Jesus was trying to bring them. Because the only way – the only way – our righteousness will ever be ‘good enough’ is when we recognize it will never be and place our faith in God and the grace of his New Covenant.
It is a sad man who takes these statements of Jesus and simply turns them into more pages in a rulebook rather than allowing God to use them to point him toward grace.
The apostle Paul echoed these thoughts in a more straightforward manner in many of his writings, most explicitly in the book of Romans:
Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin… But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known… For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law… The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans chapters 3 & 5)
Through these teachings of Jesus, we become acutely aware of our need for grace. And then that grace reigns through righteousness – the righteousness that comes from Jesus, not from anything we can do ourselves. It’s only when we completely divorce ourselves (pun certainly intended) from any notions that it would be possible to attain this righteousness that we can truly embrace grace for what it is.
So yes, in an ideal world there would be no divorce. There would be no hate. There would be no lust. There’d be no need to take oaths. In an ideal world.
Jesus makes reference to this fact in his second teaching on the subject, when some Pharisees ask him“Hey, is it really okay for a man to divorce a woman for any reason he wants?” Essentially, they were asking Jesus to weigh in on a big rabbinical debate of the time. And as Jesus usually does, he points to a third way which illustrates the Kingdom of God:
Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.
It was not this way from the beginning. Broken relationships are not the way life was intended to be. At the beginning, when the world existed in shalom, there was no need for divorce. Now, with creation being under a curse, broken relationships happen.
And as the Kingdom of God is in the process of restoring that shalom here on earth, hopefully those broken relationships will happen less and less. Jesus goes on to say that anyone who divorces, except for reasons of infidelity, essentially makes their partner an adulterer. A true statement, highlighting a broken relationship which is a result and symptom of a broken world. But the important thing to remember is that it was not this way from the beginning.
The pain and anger and disappointment and hurt of a divorce was never the way God intended anyone to feel. It wasn’t the way He created the world. It is a result of the cursed world Adam and Eve created for us and that we’ve created for ourselves.
Far from being a vehicle of condemnation toward those who have undergone the pain of divorce, Jesus’ comments on the subject echo God’s heart revealed through the prophet Malachi: “I hate divorce.” And we can stand in agreement with that. We hate divorce because of the pain and hurt it causes. We hate divorce because it is not reflective of the way life is supposed to be. And because of that, we stand with arms of mercy and love open for those who have suffered this particular symptom of the curse, united against a common enemy until God’s Kingdom is fully restored.