Applied Theology
by WordExplain

Bringing the Truths of the Bible to Bear on Specific Topics.

...Take heed then to your spirit, and let no one deal treacherously against the wife of your youth. 16 For I hate divorce,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the Lord of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” Malachi 2:15b-16

Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage


July, 2007


A.     God’s Design for Marriage.

            1.          When God created Adam and Eve, what was His plan for marriage? (Genesis 1:27; 2:18, 21-25)

                           a.                 Because His creation consisted of one woman for one man, we conclude that one man and one woman is God's order in marriage..

                           b.                This is confirmed by the words of Genesis 2:24, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh." As God designed humanity, this was to be an unending relationship (for death was not envisioned at this point as a result of sin). It was, moreover, not merely a relationship, for it is said to be a union of two individuals into one ("one flesh"). This certainly means a physical union. I believe it is also a supra-physical union of two persons – a spiritual, psychological, emotional union.

                           c.                 Jesus confirmed this design for perpetual union in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:8 when he said, "So they are no longer two, but one flesh."

                           d.                 Jesus reinforced that concept by concluding (in Matt. 19:6 and Mark 10:9), "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate."

            2.         What constitutes a marriage?

                           a.          There is a covenant, sustained by vows.

                                         1)                   In Malachi 2:13-14, God speaks of the covenant relationship in a marriage, "... the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant."

                                         2)                   This covenant idea of marriage is echoed in the vows of the traditional Episcopal Marriage Service, here reproduced in part,

                                                       a)                    "I M., take thee, W., to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God's holy ordinance; and thereto I plight thee my troth."

                                                       b)                    "As a pledge and in token of the vows between us made, with this ring I thee wed: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen."

                                         3)                  Note further that in the vow above, it is an unconditional covenant. There are no circumstances foreseen to be arising which would invalidate the vow.

                                         4)                  A marriage vow is a very serious matter to undertake in the sight of God, if no longer in the sight of man. It would be better never to undertake a vow than, having taken one, to break it (Eccles. 5:5).

                           b.          There is consummation.

                                         1)                   Consummation is assumed in the “one flesh” relationship of the Bible’s opening commentary on marriage (Gen. 2:24).

                                         2)                   This is assumed even in poetry to be the natural course of events (Psalm 19:5; Song of Solomon 4:12-16; Song of Solomon 5:1; Song of Solomon 7:6-9; Joel 2:16).

                                         3)                  Consummation is seen in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 to be an obligation of each partner toward the other.

                                         4)                  Legal requirements (Exodus 22:16-17) and New Testament standards (1 Corinthians 7:1-2) show that sexual activity in and of itself does not constitute a marriage. The latter passage shows that marriage is seen as a safeguard against illegitimate, premarital sexual activity.

                           c.                 There is a Divine fusion of the two into one. Marriage is not only two people covenanting and consummating – it is God at work, as illustrated by Jesus' statement in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9, "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate."

B.     What Terminates a Marriage?          

            1.         Divorce in the Old Testament.

                           a.                 We know that God regulated the remarriage of divorced people with an intervening marriage in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. There exists God's tacit permission of, but not explicit approval of divorce in this passage. There is in the Scriptures a progressive revelation concerning marriage.

                                         1)                   God regulated polygamy (Leviticus 18:18). Did He approve of it when His original design of marriage consisted of only one man and only one woman (Gen. 2:18-25)?

                                         2)                   Jesus adds the insight that God had allowed divorce in the Old Testament because of human hard-heartedness (Matthew 19:8; Mark 10:5).

                           b.                 After the exile, returning Hebrews committed the ageless sin of marrying "foreign women from the peoples of the land."

                                         1)                   Shechaniah said to Ezra, "We have been unfaithful to our God, and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land . . . So now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives and their children . . . ." Ezra approved, and the legalities were set in motion (Ezra 10:2-5 ff.).

                                         2)                   It may be that Ezra considered these marriages invalid. Is this a precedent for the New Testament believer? Hardly, for Paul urges Christians married to unbelievers to permit the unbeliever to stay in the marriage (1 Corinthians 7:12-14).

                           c.                  Perhaps no passage as clearly shows God's attitude toward divorce as does Malachi 2:13-16. There he rails against the men who have "dealt treacherously" with the wives of their youth (Mal. 2:14,15,16). He says, "For I hate divorce . . . and him who covers his garment with wrong (Mal. 2:16)."

                           d.                 In summary, I would say that in the Old Testament, God regulated that which He did not approve.

            2.         Divorce as viewed by Jesus in the Gospels.

                           a.                  Jesus raised the Old Testament expectations of people regarding divorce and remarriage. In Matthew 5:31-32 Jesus upped the standard of merely giving a certificate of dismissal [to be legal] by saying, in effect, that a man who divorces his wife for any reason except "fornication" (KJV) (NASB, “unchastity”) (Greek porneía, 4202) is causing her to commit adultery.

                                         1)                   Here Jesus says that a mere legal divorce does not do what they thought it would do. It does not dissolve the marriage in God's sight. To reinforce this, Jesus added an absolute, unqualified statement, "and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt. 5:32)."

                                         2)                   What Jesus seems to be saying is that divorcing a woman causes her to commit adultery (the assumption being that she will remarry), and God holds the divorcing husband responsible for the adultery she and her new husband will commit against him. If, on the other hand, she has been guilty of porneia, she, not he, has been the cause of the breakdown. He could (not must) divorce her without being responsible for her adultery, for she was already defiled. Nothing is said, however, about his remarriage.

                           b.                 Jesus first (and best) response to the question of divorce for any reason at all (Matthew 19:3) was, "Don't." His reason: Man ought not to separate what God has joined (Matt. 19:6).

                           c.                  Jesus revealed that Old Testament legislation regulating divorce had to be instituted because of hard human hearts, but that divorce was not on the Divine agenda in the beginning (Matt. 19:7-8).

                           d.                 Jesus spoke of an exception that would permit a man to divorce his wife and marry another without committing adultery – the exception of porneia (Matt. 19:9). Here two questions are involved.

                                          1)          What did Jesus mean by porneia? (4202)

a)  Most commentators and pastors see porneia in Matt. 19:9 and Matt. 5:32 as a general reference to sexual immorality. NASB, for example, translates porneia in Matt. 19:9 as immorality; in Matt. 5:32 as unchastity. It is true that porneia refers to immorality in a variety of contexts. Here are the contexts in which porneia is used in the New Testament:

 i   It is distinguished from adultery. Matt. 5:32; 15:19, Mark 7:21.

ii   It refers to sexual activity before or outside of marriage. John 8:41, 1 Cor. 7:2.

iii   It refers to sexual activity particularly offensive to Jews (too near a marriage?) Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25.

 iv   It refers to sexual sin unspecified in the context: Rom. 1:29, 2 Cor. 12:21; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess 4:3 (but there is a reference to defrauding a brother in 1 Thess. 4:6); Rev. 9:21.

 v   It refers to incest. 1 Cor. 5:1.

vi  It appears in a list, the practice of which excludes one from the kingdom of heaven. (Gal. 5:19-21)

 vii   It refers to unspecified sexual sin (Eph. 5:3) -- but reference is made to a pórnos (4205) in Eph. 5:5 (a male who patronizes a prostitute). 

viii  It refers to unspecified sexual sin, but union with a porne (4204), a female prostitute, is in the context, 1 Cor. 6:16. 1 Cor. 6:13, 18.

ix   It is committed by a woman - Jezebel. Rev. 2:21. Others are said to commit adultery with her (Rev. 2:22).

x   It is linked with Babylon. In Revelation 17:1-18:24, Babylon is a portrayed by a woman who is a prostitute who seduces all the earth’s nations to commit porneia with her (Rev. 17:1-6). Babylon is a city which represents both a government and a religion. Porneia in these cases probably means a false worship in a false religion, a spiritual immorality.

(a)  Rev. 14:8 (Idolatry is in the context.)

(b)   Rev. 17:2, 4; 19:2 (Babylon is called the “great prostitute” and said to be drunk with the blood of saints and martyrs, meaning she is guilty of persecuting and murdering true believers.)

(c)   Rev. 18:3 (The nations of earth have drunk of the wine of her fornication.)

                                                       b)                    We conclude that porneia can refer to different types of sexual sin depending on the context. If porneia in Matt. 5:32 and Matt. 19:9 means general immorality and not some specific kind of immorality, how can one explain the absence of this exception clause in the parallel passages in Mark 10:2-12 and Luke 16:18? And why does Paul not refer to immorality as a legitimate reason for divorce in Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, 39-40? Paul’s failure to mention immorality as a grounds for divorce is all the more puzzling since he specifically states he is passing on what the Lord has said (1 Cor. 7:10-11).

                                                       c)                     It seems to me that one must consider that while Mark, Luke, Romans and 1 Corinthians were written to Gentile audiences, Matthew was written to a Jewish audience. What was the Jewish consideration to which Jesus may have been referring? Did porneia have a restrictive meaning in a Jewish context? I believe that it did. I believe it may have referred to illicit sex during the Jewish betrothal period, when a couple had made a binding legal agreement (covenant) but had not yet consummated their marriage. There is a ready illustration of this meaning right in the book of Matthew. When Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant, being a righteous man, he was prepared to divorce her secretly (Matthew 1:19, where "divorce" is the same word as in Matt. 5:32 and Matt. 19:9). In this case, since Mary had been unfaithful to him, Joseph could have divorced Mary and been a righteous man. He could have married another woman without committing adultery against Mary because their marriage had never been consummated.

                                                       d)                    Another possible meaning of porneia is "marriage between near relatives [based on] (Lev. 18; Acts 15:29)” (Ryrie Study Bible note on Matt. 5:32). The decision at which the conferees at the Jerusalem Council arrived in Acts 15:1-35 was that Gentile converts to Christianity should not be forced to observe the Law of Moses, including circumcision. However, to avoid offending Jewish brethren they were to abstain from eating things sacrificed to idols, meat with blood still in it, meat from animals that had been strangled, and from porneia (Acts 15:19-20, 28-29). In this context porneia could hardly have meant immorality in general, for that is always wrong. It would have had to mean a kind of immorality particularly offensive to Jews, if not to Gentiles.

                                                       e)                    If either or both of these latter two views are correct, there is an extremely limited application to today's Gentile church.

                                          2)          Who may remarry?

                                                       a)                    While most who hold that porneia is immorality also hold that the innocent party has the right to remarry, this is by no means certain. Grammatically, the exception clause in Matthew 19:9, "except for porneia," could apply to the divorce and remarriage, or it could apply only to the divorce. In fact, however, Paul E. Steele writes, "There is no known case in Greek literature where the "exception clause," when it is in this position, includes both verbs" (Paul E. Steele, Divorce – A Modern Tragedy, IBYC, a paper presented at the National conference on Divorce and Remarriage, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, September 17-18, 1981, p. 15). His conclusion is that the exception refers to divorce, but not to remarriage.

                                                       b)                    Furthermore, all the Greek and Latin writers of the first five centuries with the exception of one held that spouses were bound to the marriage until the death of one of them. When a marriage partner was guilty of unchastity, usually understood to mean adultery, the other was expected to separate but did not have the right to remarry. Their view remained the standard view of the Church until Erasmus in the 16th century suggested the right to remarry on charitable grounds (Heth, William, Divorce, But No Remarriage, a contribution to the book, Divorce and Remarriage: Four Christian Views, H. Wayne House, Editor (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press 1990), p. 96). Heth concludes that what Matt. 19:9 is saying is that "Divorcing for reasons other than marital unfaithfulness is forbidden, and remarriage after every divorce is adulterous"(p. 104).

                                                       c)                     In fact, Jesus made absolute and unqualified statements in Mark 10:11-12, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her; and if she herself divorces her husband and marries another, man, she is committing adultery." Similarly, with no exceptions in Luke 16:18 He said, "Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery."

                                         3)                   In summary it would seem either that Jesus' exception had only narrow Jewish implications and/or that in any case the innocent party was not given permission to remarry.

                           e.                  Jesus' disciples were shocked at His conservative views. Their reaction was that if this is how restrictive marriage is, it would be "better not to marry" (Matthew 19:10).

                           f.                   Jesus' response, in context, was that only believers (in contrast to the Pharisees, for example), who had been given this insight, would find the Divine grace to accept this standard (Matthew 19:11). He identified them as those willing to remain single for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (19:12) (Heth, pp. 105-107). This coincides with the Apostle Paul's viewpoint that serving Christ without the domestic concerns of married life is both more efficient and to be pursued (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

            3.         Divorce, Death, and Remarriage as Viewed by the Apostle Paul in the Epistles.

                           a.                  Paul's statement that only death terminates a marriage is in agreement with Jesus' position on divorce and remarriage.

                                         1)                   In Romans 7:2-3, Paul states that "the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband." But what if she should remarry anyway? "So then if, while her husband is living, she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law so that she is not an adulteress, though she is joined to another man."

                                         2)                   In 1 Corinthians 7:39 he repeats the idea: "A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord."

                           b.          Paul never promotes divorce as the solution to marital problems. (1 Corinthians 7).

                                         1)                   He promotes the validity of the single life throughout Chapter 7 (see Romans 7:1,6-7,8,17-24,26-27,32-35, 37,38,40).

                                         2)                   He tells Christians not to divorce (Rom. 7:10-11, and here he claims to be passing on what Christ had previously taught).

                                         3)                  He tells a believer married to an unbeliever not to divorce, for this offers the best chance of the unbeliever's salvation (Rom. 7:12-16).

                           c.          When a divorce does occur, Paul never suggests remarriage.

                                         1)                   For Christians who divorce despite instructions not to, his only counsel is to remain single or to be reconciled with the original partner. He does not offer the alleged exception of "remarriage if immorality has taken place", though he claims to be passing on what Jesus has said about the subject (Rom. 7:10-11).

                                         2)                   For Christians whose unbelieving spouses desert despite the goodwill of the believer, his only instruction is to permit them to depart (Rom. 7:15).

                                                       a)                    His statement that the believer is not under bondage does not mean he is freed from the marriage bond (a different word is used to describe that in 7:39; furthermore he has said that only death ends a marriage – Rom. 7:39, cf. Romans 7:2-3).

                                                       b)                    It means only that he is not duty-bound to prevent his unbelieving spouse from leaving at all costs, for "God has called us to peace." This peaceful reaction to the departure of the unbelieving spouse is deemed to be the best way, again, to secure the possible salvation of the unbeliever (Rom. 7:16).

            4.        In summary, it seems best to conclude that neither unfaithfulness nor even divorce ends a marriage in God's sight, though divorce certainly terminates a marriage in man’s sight. It seems that in God’s sight, only death terminates what He has joined together.

C.     Conclusion:

             1.                God established marriage as a perpetual unbroken union between two people joined together by God Himself. Because of man's hard-heartedness, God had to regulate abuses of divorce and remarriage among His chosen people, but His attitude of hatred toward the practice of divorce did not waver.

             2.               When Jesus was pressed for His views, He raised the standard above the Law and the expectations of even the most conservative Jewish people. Divorce was never commanded, but it could be permitted without guilt in the case of a spouse whose partner committed porneia. It seems doubtful that Jesus sanctioned remarriage under any circumstance, and if He did, porneia had a special Jewish, not Gentile application anyway.

             3.               This conclusion is reinforced by a uniform view in the epistles. The clear teaching of Matthew 5:31-32, Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:18, Romans 7:1-3, and 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, 39 must govern the lone and somewhat obscure exception of Matthew 19:9, not vice versa. Whether the reader agrees with my interpretation or not, Jesus’ first and best answer to the question of divorce was this: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate (Matt. 19:6; Mark 10:9).”

             4.               To those who find themselves wishing to exit their marriage, I encourage you to stay where you are. When the Apostle Paul was in great duress, God assured, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9)."

             5.               To those who find themselves in the single state through divorce, whether of their own choosing or not, though I'm sure you go through deep agonies of soul in loneliness, I would encourage you to be "content with what you have; for He Himself has said, 'I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you' (Hebrews 13:5)." I would encourage you to serve the Lord singly, efficiently and with joy, for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:12).

Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

by James T. Bartsch,

July, 2007

Updated August 21, 2015

Go to What does the Bible say about Marriage?

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(Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.  Used by Permission.)

Updated August 21, 2015

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