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What exactly was Jesus saying in Matthew 5:32?

Matthew 5:32 (NKJV)
But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

The Greek word in the passage is passive. Various translations render the key phrase vastly differently:

  • "causes her to commit adultery"

  • "makes her an adulteress"

  • "makes her a victim of adultery"

The respective implications of these differences are very weighty!

I found some interesting information about this on a site with commentary about Bible translations along with a lengthy discussion, but there are no solid conclusions drawn. Does anyone here have any scholarly insight into this issue?

Note: I have spent much time with all the passages in all the gospels pertaining to this, and with the OT law and with Paul's writings. If anyone sees how it all comes together I would welcome that in an answer just as much as an address to the word phrase immediately at hand. Or if you can point me in the direction of resources on the matter please post them in the comments.

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@Sarah-Before 'no-fault divorce' laws that were passed in the '70's, much scruitiny had been given to these passages, as "What God hath joined, let no man put asunder" was incorporated into our laws as part of Blackstone's legacy. Many lawyers have 'tweaked' the interpretation of these words-rendering meaningless their interpretation. Understanding this passage(and others) regarding marriage requires one to examine the whole counsel of Jesus's Word's, rather than one word or phrase which may be parsed differently-depending on one's theological persuasion. –  user2479 Dec 20 '13 at 4:01
@user2479, Do you understand how the pieces fit together. I have spent much time with all the passages in all the gospels pertaining to this, and with the OT law and with Paul's writings. Still this element of it alludes me. If you see how it all comes together I would welcome that in an answer just as much as an address to the word phrase immediately at hand. I will edit my question accordingly. –  Sarah Dec 20 '13 at 15:03
Very interesting question. I can’t give anything beyond beliefs now. I’ve seen several citings that others have shared about the practice of divorce and marriage. You may well know these, but I’ve been told to check Deut 24:1-4 and how that pertains to Moses’ law, but then that being noted within Matthew’s 19:3-12. Others I’ve been given are Cor 7:8-11, and Eph 5:31. I agree they aren’t easy to reconcile. +1 –  John Martin Dec 20 '13 at 19:22
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2 Answers

[Summarized from Brad Young's Jesus, the Jewish Theologian, pp. 114-116.]

Divorce and remarriage are permitted under Jewish law, and Jesus did not prohibit the two acts. However, many Christians have made divorce and remarriage for any reason the same as adultery. There are even Christian denominations which do not allow their ministers to be remarried (the Assemblies of God, for one. Within the last few years they have added an exception clause that they will credential those whose divorce took place before salvation).

While permitted, most rabbis taught divorce was to be a rare circumstance. Rabbi Eleazar stated that when a man divorces the wife of his youth, even the altar weeps (BT Gittim 90b).

Jesus addressed divorce in three parallel passages.

Matthew 5:32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (NAS)

Mark 10:11-12 And He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; 12 and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another man, she is committing adultery." (NAS)

Luke 16:18 Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery. (NAS)

Some conclude that divorce is synonymous with adultery because of these statements. However, that is not the case. Jesus is seeking to prevent injustice.

In the Mishnah (Sotah 5.1), we learn that a woman who is divorced because of an adulterous relationship (her own) is not permitted to marry her lover. Jesus is addressing the case of a male. Some divorces come about so that the man can marry a younger, more attractive wife. Divorce in order to marry a specific person is adultery. Divorce itself was a way to end a union. Remarriage was expected afterwards, but it was sin to have picked out the new partner before the old union is broken.

In Luke, both the verbs "divorce" and "remarry" are in the present tense. The parallel in Mark puts them in the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood sometimes show a sense of purpose. While this is typically the case with a hina clause, there is no hina here. However, Mark could still have the intent in mind with his choice of teh subjunctive mood. That would render Mark's meaning as "Whoever divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery against her." Back translating the Greek into Hebrew would show that the actions are linked in continuous motion: "Everyone who divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery."

The second part of Luke's verse must be understood in the same way. In the Mishnah, if a man marries a woman who obtained divorce merely for the sake of her second marriage, then it is considered adultery. Divorce is not adultery. However, obtaining a divorce for the sake of a planned remarriage breaks the sacred trust of marital fidelity.

Jesus was not seeking abrogate the Hebrew scriptures concerning marriage, divorce, and remarriage. However, he sought to prevent the abuse and set limits to its application. If a man divorces his wife because he desires to marry someone else, it is adultery. Divorce can be employed to commit adultery.

Even when the letter of the law is followed in these cases, the spirit can be broken. Thus, the higher purpose of the law is annulled. Divorce must not be used as a convenience to consummate adultery.

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A more difficult passage to some, yet saying the same thing with Jesus's same intent is found in Matt. 19:3-12 —

3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read , that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said , For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together , let not man put asunder. 7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away ? 8 He saith unto them , Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say unto you , Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery : and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. 10 His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. 11 But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. 12 For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

Here Jesus is confronted with a legal question by the Pharisees, who were attempting to trip Him up. Their context was Deut. 24:1-3, —

1 When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. 2 And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife. 3 And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die , which took her to be his wife; 4 Her former husband, which sent her away , may not take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled ; for that is abomination before the LORD: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin , which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.

It was not lawful for a man to take back an original wife whom he had divorced,after she married another, and her second husband died.

Here you see Jesus state God's original intent*,"...the twain shall be 1 flesh."* This is the One Covenant still in existence before the downfall, that 'God' from Heaven sees 1 body. Therefore, whatever a husband and wife do together(in love) is covered under the 1 flesh covenant. Paul illustrates this in 1 Cor. 7; and in Heb. 13:4, —

Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.

So, to understand Jesus's command, one must understand God's Original Intention, which existed before the Fall, and the One Flesh Covenant He makes with a man and woman rightly joined together in marriage. Another discussion is marriage entered under duress, false pretenses, etc., these are not "God Joined" marriages-therefore do not come under the "One Flesh" Covenant.

What is interesting is what Jesus tells His disciples(in private) after His confrontation with the Pharisees in Matt. 19.

First, when confronted by them about "Can a man put away his wife for any cause(no fault divorce)", and "Why therefore did Moses allow a Bill of Divorcement", Jesus responds, "Because of the hardness of your hearts." First of all, Moses never gave them 'carte blanche' to divorce their wives, it was for "uncleaness" (adultery, fornication) yet it could be interpreted 'disfavor', which an "evil and adulterous generation" could construe as meaning 'for whatever reason'.

So when He says,"But I say to you....", He has rolled back that understanding; instead, re-establishing 'uncleaness' as meaning fornication or adultery (fornication would be sexual union w/one who is unmarried, adultery is with one who is). One cannot be 'joined' to one who is joined to someone else unlawfully, this is clearly His intent.

Now, after He reproves the Pharisees, telling them that "...whosoever divorces his wife, or marries a woman who was put away (for adultery) commits adultery", His disciples have a huge question, and it goes like this: 'What about the one who has been unfaithful to, it would be better off for them not to get married in the 1st place. Are they to remain 'eunuchs' (those who are incapable or taken a vow of celebacy)?

Then Jesus responds,"To those who are given this 'command' by God, let them 'receive' it, meaning unless you are given direction by God(and the accompanying grace) to remain single, then get married(in the Lord). This does not apply to the offender, only the offendee. The 'offendee' (if through no cause of their own, God judges the heart) is divorced by their spouse, then they are "free from the guilt of adultery, and may take another spouse(of course, in the Lord)". The offender is charged with additional sin, which is to "drive their partner in the arms of another man/woman" which is tantamount to adultery.

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You've got some good stuff here but I think you wander a little too far from our site guidelines on this: "Answers should stop short of prescribing a contemporary application." Perhaps instead of the last couple paragraphs you could use the space to beef up you're case with connections from the text that you think people will need to make sound applications themselves. –  Caleb Dec 23 '13 at 11:17
@Caleb-I'm not quite sure how, and not touch the 'application electrified barb wire'. I cringe sometimes when I post these kinds of answers; they go beyond pipe smoking academae and real people look at them and their circumstances and say, 'there is a way out...'. My answer is not intended to do that, rather, it is an understanding developed over many years. I could include the 1 Cor. 7 passage which got edited out. I will attempt(after Christmas) to add to the answer which would convey the seriousness that I treat this subject. –  user2479 Dec 24 '13 at 14:48
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