Is The Context All About CAUSE?
By Jeff Belknap
Those who promote post-unapproved-divorce “putting away” would have us to believe that Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage was all about cause. They point to the Pharisees’ question in Matthew 19:3, and declare that the Lord’s teaching regarding divorce and remarriage was solely to answer the question of whether it was lawful to put away for any cause.
We are told that if we simply acknowledge the finalization of a divorce that is not for the cause of fornication (against an unwilling mate), we advocate the superceding of civil law over God’s law. They tell us that if we don’t agree to “an innocent” (already put away) person’s “right” to “put away” for the cause of their mate’s post-divorce fornication, that we are disregarding the emphasis of Jesus’ teaching – cause.
Nevertheless, the heart of God’s decree was not the cause for lawful divorce. The essence of Jesus’ teaching was God’s permanent design for marriage and His unwillingness to “suffer” - or make provision - for the hardness of man’s heart any longer. Jesus’ words regarding divorce and remarriage contrast the law of Moses with the law of Christ. Throughout the context of Matthew 5, the recurrent theme is, “You have heard that it was said by them of old time....But I say unto you….”
To understand what kind of divorce and remarriage regulations the Lord’s law replaced, we must examine Deuteronomy 24:1-4:
“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.”
Thus, Moses’ law in regards to divorce and remarriage was the following:
1) If a man desired to divorce his wife because of “some uncleanness,” he was to write her a bill of divorcement and give it to her when he sent her out of the house.
2) After this divorce for a cause other than fornication (fornicators were put to death), the bill of divorcement confirmed the divorced woman’s eligibility to remarry another.
3) If her next husband divorced her or died, the previous husband was precluded from remarrying her.
The context of Matthew 19:9 began with a specific question, however the question was insincere. Verse 3 reveals that Jesus’ teaching on this occasion was in response to the Pharisees’ “tempting Him, and saying unto Him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” (emp. jhb). Some background information regarding this “tempting” can be found in Albert Barne’s New Testament Commentary (as well as several others that confirm the same) on Mathew 19:3:
“Tempting him. This means, to get him, if possible, to express an opinion that should involve him in difficulty. There was the more art in this captious question which they proposed, as at that time the people were very much divided on the subject. A part, following the opinions of Hillel, said, that a man might divorce his wife for any offence, or any dislike he might have of her. See Barnes for Mt 5:31. Others, of the school of Shammai, maintained, that divorce was unlawful, except in case of adultery. Whatever opinion, therefore, Christ expressed, they expected that he would involve himself in difficulty with one of their parties.”
Of course, Jesus recognized the Pharisees’ insincerity and confounded those who sought to “tempt him” with their questions, as He did on many other occasions. He began his teaching by reviewing God’s will for marriage from the very beginning. The Lord revealed the sharp contrast in covenants by emphasizing God’s LAW (not His “exception”). The Pharisees countered by asking why the law of Moses allowed and regulated divorce, then. Jesus’ answer probably did not set very well with the Pharisees, for it was an indictment against their own hardness of hearts.
Jesus then revealed His own will, in contrast to what Moses “suffered,” and stated, “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” (emp. jhb).
Thus, in Matthew 19:9 the Lord set forth the following:
1) Whoever puts away his spouse and marries another, commits adultery.
2) (This is true in every case except when he puts away for fornication.)
3) Whoever marries the one who is put away commits adultery.
Neither Mark’s nor Luke’s account of the Lord’s teaching regarding divorce and remarriage even mention the exception (the lawful cause for putting away). Hence, it is clear that He placed greater emphasis on His LAW, than on the exception.
Mark and Luke also address the contrast between what Moses “suffered” (cf. Luke 16:16-18) with Christ’s law. Thus, in every account of his teaching on this topic, Jesus pointed out the differences between His law, and that of Moses. Considering His recurring theme, is it any wonder that He included more than a specific answer to the Pharisees’ specific question? If the Lord’s emphasis was all about the lawful cause to put away, why then, did He include the unsolicited truth regarding the one who is put away (Matthew 5:32b; 19:9b; Luke 16:18b)?
In Luke 16:18, our Lord taught His fundamental law regarding those who put away and those who are put away, again pointing out its differences from the law of Moses, while never even mentioning the exception to it. It is clear that the Almighty’s emphasis was on His RULE (versus that of Moses), not on the exception to His rule. Additionally, this repeated emphasis confirmed His own authority over Moses.
The contrast between the two laws is clear. Moses suffered treacherous and ‘violent’ putting away (necessarily implying the innocence and unwillingness of its victim, cf. Malachi 2:16) for causes other than adultery, but the Lord condemned it. Moses also tolerated remarriage for those who put away their mates, but the Lord precluded it (except when the putting away was done for the cause of fornication). Moses allowed those who were put away to remarry another, but the Lord called it adultery.
In truth, recognizing the finalization of man’s unlawful divorce against an unwilling mate (via whatever applicable, socially-recognized means) is not honoring “man’s law over God’s law.” (Even God recognized the divorces that were occurring contrary to the will that He had stated from the beginning, before Moses “suffered” it.) Recognizing the final step in an unlawful divorce is simply acknowledging that Christ’s law (which precludes remarriage for the put away) supercedes the law of Moses (which allowed remarriage for the put away).