Correct Interpretation of the Exception Clause in Matthew 5:32

The reason for the exception clause differs in the two texts where it appears. Thus, we will examine these texts separately.

The first text, Matthew 5:32, comes from the Sermon on the Mount. While discussing the Seventh Commandment, Jesus shows how a man can violate it without indulging in the outward act of adultery. The mere thought of unlawful sex transgresses the law. So also does any word or deed proceeding from the knowledge that it may tempt another person to commit sexual sin. Jesus says that if a man divorces his wife, he is guilty of causing her to commit adultery. The unstated but obvious reason is that in sending her away, he creates an opportunity for her to have relations with another man.

But suppose that a wife commits adultery before her husband divorces her. Suppose further that she then remarries. That remarriage is indeed adultery. But can God hold her former husband responsible for it? Perhaps she marries the man she was involved with before the divorce. Even if she marries a different man, she established her guilt as an adulteress before her husband divorced her. Therefore, God will not blame her first husband for her adulterous behavior.

It is obvious that in Matthew 5:32, the exception clause is simply a technical adjustment of the law to lay no more blame on an offended spouse than he deserves.

Correct Interpretation of the Exception Clause in Matthew 19:9

The context here is Jesus' discussion with the Pharisees, who were notorious for taking many wives in succession. The Pharisees wanted to justify divorce under any circumstances. Jesus replies that a man who divorces and remarries is guilty of breaking the Seventh Commandment—a stinging rebuke, since the Pharisees considered themselves perfect before the law.

But suppose that a man divorces his wife and remarries only after discovering that his first wife was unfaithful to him. Matthew says he is innocent of adultery, whereas Mark, in Mark 10:11-12, implies he is guilty. How do we treat this apparent contradiction? We must recognize that in some measure the two Gospels address different audiences, with different customs and laws. Matthew was written especially to the Jews, Mark especially to the gentiles.

Among the Jews, and solely among them, adultery was a capital offense. The law of Moses clearly stated that adulterers should be put to death.

If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.

Deuteronomy 22:22

Whether the Jews in Jesus' day actually executed anyone for adultery has been debated inconclusively. Most scholars, appealing to the known fact that the Romans reserved for themselves the right to impose and administer a death penalty, believe that capital punishment of adultery had become obsolete. Yet the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8:3-11) and the story of Steven's stoning (Acts 7:54-60) suggest that mobs sometimes took the law into their own hands.

However the Jews of His day dealt with adultery, Jesus Himself never questioned the criminal penalties of the Mosaic system. Rather,

1 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples,

2 Saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat:

3 All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do. . . .

Matthew 23:1-3

If we recognize that Jesus viewed adultery as a capital offense, we readily discover why He added the exception clause to Matthew 19:9. Under the Mosaic law, an offended husband could deliver his wife to be executed by stoning. Then, after his first wife was dead, he could remarry without committing adultery. But suppose, in mercy, he spared the life of his unfaithful wife. If he nevertheless divorced her and remarried, would God hold him guilty of adultery, a capital offense? In other words, would he then be a criminal deserving of death just because he saved the life of another criminal deserving of death? Of course not. Jesus says,

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

Matthew 5:7

Therefore, a just God pronounces this man innocent of adultery.

Proper Rule for Today

Before we can determine how Jesus' teaching on divorce applies to us, we must take into account that society has changed.

In the modern world, no system of law imposes the death penalty on adulterers. Hence, divorce is no longer a merciful alternative to worse punishment, and the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 no longer applies. Someone who remarries after divorcing an unfaithful spouse no longer escapes the guilt of adultery.

Also, polygamy is no longer legal. As noted in the previous lesson, the legal standing of polygamy in the ancient world is probably the only reason that Jesus declines to condemn a man who remarries after his first wife has divorced him. But even in the pre-Christian era, marriage to multiple wives was not compatible with God's intention for marriage. There are many clues both in the Old Testament and the New Testament that the only proper marriage in God's eyes is the union of one man and one woman. Now that society has rightly rejected polygamy, a man who remarries after his wife divorces him commits adultery.

Therefore, in our moral evaluation of divorce, we must set a high standard. The appropriate rule for today boils down to three simple statements.

  1. Anyone who divorces one spouse and marries another commits adultery.
  2. The initiator of a divorce is guilty of tempting the rejected spouse to commit adultery. Therefore, the initiator is guilty of causing adultery whether or not it happens.
  3. A divorced person who remarries commits adultery. Hence, the other person who is party to the new marriage commits adultery as well.

The law correctly understood mirrors and magnifies the holiness of God. It is therefore severe, according to human ways of thinking. But what is true righteousness? It is first of all complete truthfulness. Someone who has vowed faithfulness "for better or worse. . . .Till death do us part" is not free to remarry even if the other party to the vow forsakes him. To have one's spouse obtain a divorce, for whatever reason, is a kind of "worse" that may come with marriage. Secondly, true righteousness is perfect love. How can someone show perfect love for a spouse who has ended the marriage? Is it not by praying and hoping that the offender will repent of soul-shattering sin and renew the marriage? Just as a good husband or wife will stick by a mate through a bout of bodily cancer, so he or she will remain faithful to a mate who has succumbed to moral cancer.

But we must recognize that the obligation of a forsaken spouse to stay single is not absolute. He has no remaining duty to his former mate if the latter remarries. Then he may remarry as well. Why? Because the original marriage could only be revived by terminating an existing marriage—the second marriage of the unfaithful spouse. But to uphold the institution of marriage, society needs to frown upon divorce under any circumstances. Besides, the prohibition of divorce that we find in the words of Jesus and throughout Scripture is never presented as limited in scope to a first marriage. Termination of any marriage, a second or a third as well as a first, is wrong. Therefore, even for the purpose of reviving a previous marriage, it is wrong to get a divorce.

But what if someone responsible for divorce chooses not to remarry, but opts rather for an independent life with or without sexual relationships? Then the forsaken spouse cannot remarry, but must wait and pray that the person once beloved will awaken to the beauty and promise of the marriage now dead.

Again, we resist such teaching because it seems to ask too much. But we underestimate the power of God available to effectual faith. Let the victim of a failed marriage dedicate himself to untiring prayer for the victimizer. Let him pray for a treacherous mate with as much earnestness as he would for a mate facing death. I have seen God restore a wayward spouse. I have also seen Him take the life of a wayward spouse who refused to repent.

We may rejoice that a holy God is full of compassion. Although He does not permit an innocent victim of divorce or desertion to remarry so long as the victimizer remains unmarried, He offers the abandoned spouse special grace to endure loneliness. If he or she submits to God's law, God will give that person a full and rewarding life.

God will be merciful if that person remarries. But the cost of remarriage is forfeiture of God's best. He wants us to treat each other with divine love, patient and enduring even at great personal cost. Unfortunately, few Christians understand or practice the principle of sacrifice. The greater the cost we incur for the sake of "the kingdom of God and His righteousness," the more God will bless us (Matt. 6:33).

Mixed Marriages

In a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever, the spiritual divide might make them both feel that they have been cheated out of true marriage. Yet Paul clearly teaches that divorce is not the right solution.

12 But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.

13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.

1 Corinthians 7:12-13

In the verses preceding these, Paul enunciates the general rule prohibiting divorce. But because many of his readers were familiar with the laws of the Old Testament, which permitted divorce in some cases of mixed marriage, Paul goes on to say that the law of Christ does not allow this exception. He states explicitly that a Christian should not seek a divorce from a non-Christian.

A mixed marriage can arise in three ways.

1. A believer can marry an unbeliever. Under Old Testament law, intermarriage between God's people and the heathen was forbidden (Deut. 7:3), and any mixed marriage formed in this way was to be dissolved. An incident recorded in the Book of Ezra demonstrates that God required divorce from a heathen wife.

1 Now when these things were done, the princes came to me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.

2 For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass.

3 And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonied. . . .

1 Now when Ezra had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, there assembled unto him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children: for the people wept very sore.

2 And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, answered and said unto Ezra, We have trespassed against our God, and have taken strange wives of the people of the land: yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing.

3 Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.

4 Arise; for this matter belongeth unto thee: we also will be with thee: be of good courage, and do it.

5 Then arose Ezra, and made the chief priests, the Levites, and all Israel, to swear that they should do according to this word. And they sware.

6 Then Ezra rose up from before the house of God, and went into the chamber of Johanan the son of Eliashib: and when he came thither, he did eat no bread, nor drink water: for he mourned because of the transgression of them that had been carried away.

7 And they made proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem unto all the children of the captivity, that they should gather themselves together unto Jerusalem; . . .

10 And Ezra the priest stood up, and said unto them, Ye have transgressed, and have taken strange wives, to increase the trespass of Israel.

11 Now therefore make confession unto the LORD God of your fathers, and do his pleasure: and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives.

12 Then all the congregation answered and said with a loud voice, As thou hast said, so must we do. . . .

16 And the children of the captivity did so. And Ezra the priest, with certain chief of the fathers, after the house of their fathers, and all of them by their names, were separated, and sat down in the first day of the tenth month to examine the matter.

17 And they made an end with all the men that had taken strange wives by the first day of the first month.

18 And among the sons of the priests there were found that had taken strange wives: namely, of the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brethren; Maaseiah, and Eliezer, and Jarib, and Gedaliah. . . .

44 All these had taken strange wives: and some of them had wives by whom they had children.

Ezra 9:1-3; 10:1-7,10-12, 16-18, 44

There can be no doubt that God approved of the extreme measures taken by Ezra. Why? These marriages contrary to the law fulfilled neither of His purposes in marriage. In a union between a Jewish man and a heathen woman, love could not rise to a spiritual level, and offspring could not be grounded in truth.

Nehemiah comments on the poor results of child-rearing in a divided home.

23 In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab:

24 And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people.

25 And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves.

Nehemiah 13:23-25

Modern readers of Ezra's campaign to purge the land of mixed marriages are inclined to think that the mandatory uprooting of wives and children from their homes was harsh. Yet it was not unjust. Such marriages were clearly illegal. Also, the wives and children were divorced according to the law. In other words, they were sent away with a proper settlement. Furthermore, it is possible that a heathen wife could have prevented divorce by simply espousing her husband's religion, as did Rahab and Ruth. The law did not forbid marriage to a proselyte.

Marrying someone known to be an unbeliever is as wrong for a believer today as it was in Old Testament times.

14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

2 Corinthians 6:14

2. A mixed marriage results where both partners were originally nominal believers, but one apostatizes. Again, under Old Testament law, the proper remedy was termination of the marriage. The prescribed method was execution of the offender.

6 If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;

7 Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;

8 Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:

9 But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.

10 And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the LORD thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

Deuteronomy 13:6-10

God gave death as the penalty for enticement to false religion, because the enticer might deprive others of eternal life. He might commit spiritual murder, a far worse offense than murder of physical life.

The New Testament also recommends severe treatment of heretics.

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.

Romans 16:17

But although it counsels the church to dissociate from them, it does not authorize anyone to kill them.

3. A third kind of mixed marriage arises when the gospel enters an unbelieving home and saves one partner but not the other. Gentile homes where one partner worshiped the true God and the other did not must have been rare in Old Testament times, and the law of Moses says nothing about the duty of the believer in these circumstances. Yet in New Testament times, such homes account for the great preponderance of mixed marriages.

Although the law of Moses sought to eradicate mixed marriages, at least of the first two kinds, the New Testament takes a different view of them. In FIrst Corinthians, Paul counsels the church to tolerate mixed marriages, however they arose. Indeed, he forbids divorce.