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Raising the Bar on Marriage and Divorce

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 5:31–48; Luke 6:27–30, 32–36

Righteous living is not a legal matter but a heart matter. It is concerned not only with doing what is legal but also with doing what is most honoring to God in all our relationships and activities.


In His Sermon on the Mount, the Lord has raised the bar on several heart issues, including anger and lust. Now He raises the bar on the sanctity of marriage.

Sadly, by Jesus’ generation, marriage was not considered a lifelong covenant, and divorce was easy to get. While the issue was debated among rabbis, the reality is that divorce was permitted for just about anything as long as a certificate of divorce was submitted. It was just a matter of paperwork.

Well, Jesus is about to declare that marriage and divorce are more than paperwork. He speaks to the issue here in Matthew chapter 5:

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (verses 31-32)

Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 24. The law of Moses certainly did not commend or even condone divorce but required accountability and a certificate of divorce. Jesus clarifies the issue, and what He teaches is a lot narrower than what His Jewish world permitted. He says here, “except on the ground of sexual immorality.” So, marriage can have what is called an exception clause of sexual immorality.

Later on, the apostle Paul will write in 1 Corinthians 7:15 that if a woman’s husband no longer wants to be married to her and leaves her, she is no longer bound to him. Paul writes, “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister [that is, the abandoned spouse] is not enslaved,” or no longer bound. That is what we call the exception clause of abandonment.  

So, if a woman was abandoned—and that happened frequently—she was freed from the marriage bond and therefore free to remarry.[1]

Combining Jesus’ exception clause with the apostle Paul’s, then, you have these two bond-breaking events—sexual infidelity and/or abandonment. This does not mean the innocent party has to divorce the guilty spouse—I always urge repentance and reconciliation, by the way. But this allows for divorce to take place, which frees the innocent spouse to remarry.

This was really strict teaching in Christ’s time, because divorce could be obtained without any cause. And for women especially, it was life-threatening to suddenly be without a husband’s support in that day.

Jesus is effectively raising the bar, and the rest of the New Testament concurs, making it clear that God’s ideal is for a husband and wife to be faithfully married to one another for life. Now just because Jesus said this does not make marriage easy. Frankly, the work of making marriage work is a lot of work!

A big part of the problem is that, to most people, the main purpose of marriage is mutual fulfillment.[2] In other words, my spouse’s main job is to make me happy. Never mind humble sacrifice; never mind servanthood; never mind the commitment of Christ to His church; never mind raising a godly heritage—marriage is all about me!

The average married person today is thinking, I married her because I thought she would meet my needs or I married him because I thought he would give me the life I wanted.

One counselor was rather humorous in commenting on most men who came to him for marriage counseling, complaining about their wives not giving them what they wanted out of their marriage. He said, “Most of these men didn’t really want a wife. What they really wanted was a golden retriever.” They wanted somebody to be at their beck and call—somebody to live for them.

Beloved, your marriage and mine takes commitment and sacrifice and daily investment. Do you know why it is hard work? Because we live in a sinful world that is not going to help husbands and wives stay contented with one another. It is hard work because you happened to marry a fallen sinner. In fact, you know what marriage is? It is the union of two fallen sinners, and as self-centered, sinful people, we want to be the center of the universe—we want our spouses to live for us.

And if they don’t? We will be like the people in Jesus’ day. It’s just paperwork. One historian said that Roman women dated their years with the different names of their husbands. The Jewish people were no better.

Jesus is raising the bar here. He is saying that if divorce is not based on adultery—and the apostle Paul would add, if it is not based on abandonment—stay committed to each other as you depend on the Spirit of God.

Now let me add here that if a man is abusive to his wife, if he is threatening harm to his wife; if she has grown afraid of physical harm, then he has effectively abandoned his marriage vows to care for her. He has abandoned his role to protect her; and as far as I understand the Scriptures, he has abandoned her. I would recommend that the wife separate for her own safety and then call her husband to accountability and repentance and counseling. If he refuses it, he is merely proving his abandonment, and she can biblically be divorced from him and marry someone else.

Having raised the bar on marriage, Jesus next raises the bar on telling the truth, as He speaks here in verses 34-35:

“I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.’”

The Pharisees would make all kinds of oaths and then find some loophole allowing them to break their word. Jesus says in verse 37, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’” In other words, say what you mean, and do what you say.

Jesus then speaks to the issue of retaliation. He says in verse 38, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’”—that is, the punishment should fit the crime. But again, Jesus raises the bar. This biblical principle does not require personal retaliation. He says His followers should be willing to accept insult and injustice.

He says to accept a slap on a cheek—a reference to a man insulting another man—and accept being sued without responding in kind. He adds in verse 41, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

 Then He says down in verse 48, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The word “perfect” means complete or mature—so, be as mature and gracious as your heavenly Father.

Let me explain this concept of going two miles back up in verse 41. During the days of Christ, a Jewish person could be compelled to carry a Roman soldier’s heavy gear for one mile.[3]

The Jews, of course, despised this demeaning custom. A mile was considered 1,000 steps, so you can just imagine him counting out loud as they walked down the road, “1, 2, 3 … 999, 1,000.” He would drop that soldier’s gear and take not one step farther.

Again, Jesus is raising the bar here in verse 41 when He says, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

Can you imagine if you said to some Roman soldier, “Listen, I’ve already had to walk 1,000 steps, but I belong to Jesus Christ, my Savior, and in honor of His sacrifice for me, I’m going to carry your gear a second mile.” That Roman soldier would scratch his head and think, These Christians are remarkable people.

By the way, this phrase from the Lord is where we got the expression we use today, of somebody going the extra mile.

[1] John MacArthur, 1 Peter (Moody Publishers, 2004), 177.

[2] David Crary, “Key to a Good Marriage?”

[3] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1 (Westminster Press, 1975), 168.

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