Weekly Playlist  |  May 13-19

Sermon on the Mount - Murder, Adultery, and Divorce

Jesus in the Divorce Debate

Listen to the reading of Scripture below and then learn more from related resources. As you meditate on this passage, think about this question: What was the cultural debate about divorce that Jesus spoke into?

Read – Matthew 5:31-32

Matthew 5:31-32

Divorce and Remarriage

1 min

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Divorce and Remarriage
It has also been said, "Whoever sends away his wife, he must give her a certificate of divorce."
And I say to you that anyone who sends away his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, he makes her the victim of adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
About This Translation
This reading uses a new translation from the BibleProject Scholar Team, which aims to bring fresh language to familiar words while using consistent English terms for Greek words used throughout this part of Scripture.

We'll be adding more translations here in the future, but in the meantime, you can find more translations now on the BibleProject app.
Watch – Insights, Passage Insight: Jesus in the Divorce Debate


In Jesus’ day, people debated over when a man could divorce his wife, and many women were left vulnerable. But Jesus spoke about divorce in terms of God’s vision for marriage, a co-equal union sealed with loyalty and protected from abuse.

Listen – Wisdom About Divorce for Today

Chapter from Sermon on the Mount E13

Wisdom About Divorce for Today

5 min

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Wisdom About Divorce for Today


Jesus’ teaching on divorce is an invitation to covenant loyalty. He was addressing a specific question on divorce in an ancient culture. Applying this wisdom requires balancing Jesus’ invitation to covenant loyalty with care for the vulnerable.

Read – Divorce in the Bible: How Jesus Responded to the Debate

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” The religious experts pressed Jesus for an answer (Matt. 19:3), and his response has fueled hot debate ever since. While his teaching seems to clearly prohibit almost all divorce and cast post-divorce remarriage as an act of adultery, there is good reason to look deeper into the larger biblical narrative.

When we hear Jesus' words on this issue within the biblical narrative, two key points will emerge.

First, Jesus never gives us a comprehensive teaching on the ethics of divorce and remarriage.

Second, he uses the conversation about legal divorce and remarriage as a case study to expose and rebuke men who demean women or treat them as objects.

So let’s begin by examining the only two texts in the Hebrew Bible that specifically talk about divorce. Then we'll explore how Jesus connects marriage to creation's design, in order to show his opposers how they are ignoring God's original intent for marriage and, by doing so, normalizing harmful treatment toward women.

The “Any Cause” for Divorce Debate

In the first scene, the Pharisees “test” Jesus, meaning they ask a leading question designed to trap him into saying something that will discredit his public reputation. They ask whether a man can legally divorce his wife for “any reason at all,” and they do this to pull Jesus into a specific debate happening during the first century among Jewish Rabbis.

Scholars sometimes call this the “any cause divorce” debate, which hinges on a key term from the Deuteronomy 24:1-4 instructions on divorce.

The law in Deuteronomy 24:1 allows a man to divorce his wife if he’s found “some indecency” (NASB) or “something offensive” (NET) in her. The Hebrew phrase is 'ervat davar (ערות דבר), which more literally means “nakedness of a matter.”

Talk about ambiguity! What does “nakedness of a matter” even mean? Just 12 verses earlier, we find instructions for the proper disposal of human excrement, followed by “... your camp must be holy, and [God] must not see anything indecent ('ervat davar) among you, or he will turn away from you” (Deut. 23:14b). While perspectives about its meaning have changed over time, Jacob Neusner highlights three main lines of interpretation, each attributed to a leading rabbi in Jesus’ day.

The House of Shammai says, “A man should divorce his wife only because he has found grounds for it in unchastity, since it is said, ‘Because he has found in her indecency in a thing’ ….”

The House of Hillel says, “Even if she spoiled his dish, since it is said, ‘Because he has found in her indecency of a thing ….”

Rabbi Aqiba says, “Even if he found someone else prettier than she, since it is said, ‘And it shall be if she finds no favor in his eyes’ ....” (1)

Some interpreted “nakedness of a matter” or “some indecency” as anything the man didn’t like about his wife, even down to bad cooking. So if the husband is irritated, that’s grounds for divorce! Others went even further to say that if he sees someone more attractive, then he’s found a problem with his wife worthy of divorce. But Shammai’s interpretation limited this term to marital unfaithfulness. For Shammai, divorce is only valid if the woman cheated on her husband.

With all this debate swirling, the Pharisees come to Jesus, asking, “What’s your position on this?” And that’s our first major clue for understanding this story. They do not ask Jesus to talk about divorce and remarriage in general. They ask Jesus to enter the debate orbiting the ambiguous term 'ervat davar, the nakedness of a matter, about legitimate reasons for divorce.

Therefore, Jesus’ words on divorce and remarriage do not provide an exhaustive or complete teaching on the topic. In fact, the whole Hebrew Bible only directly talks about divorce and remarriage in situations that are difficult to compare with modern marriages.

More Than One Reason for Divorce

Twice in the Hebrew Bible we see God giving reasons for initiating divorce, and he gives not one but several legitimate warrants. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 gives the relatively ambiguous reason we discussed above, and we should note how that case only referred to men divorcing women.

Notice how the question the Pharisees pose to Jesus on divorce is only about what men are allowed to do to women. The question itself reveals a problem in their hearts, namely their desire to think of and treat women as less than men, or even as objects.

In Exodus 21:10-11, the situation in view changes. Here is the polygamous case of an enslaved wife whose husband then takes another wife and, as a result, stops treating her (his first wife) well. God says the original wife may leave her husband if he reduces her food, limits her clothing, or refuses sexual intimacy with her. “If [the husband] will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out [freely]” (Exod. 21:11).

Now, this marriage is between a man and an enslaved woman he acquires to be his wife, making it nearly impossible to compare to most modern marriage practices. But God’s principal concern for the vulnerable to be protected and treated with generous care is clear.

Still, the Scriptures do not give comprehensive teaching to cover all marriage and divorce situations. The Torah indicates that divorce might happen for more than one reason, and it only discusses divorce in relation to highly specific situations.

Eden and the Original Picture of Marriage

When the Pharisees try to trap Jesus in their ongoing debates about legal divorce, Jesus says they’re missing the point. Men are looking for “godly” reasons to ditch their wives, but they’re asking, “Where’s the legal line? When are we allowed to divorce?” Jesus knows divorce is harmful, so his primary concern relates to the wisdom in divorce, not whether it’s allowed or not.

Imagine a child asking a parent, “When am I allowed to expose my body to radiation?” A good parent will likely say, “Never! We want you to be happy and healthy. Radiation harms you!” This is basic wisdom combined with a strong value for life.

However, the situation changes when the child has stage 4 cancer. In this case, radiation can help decrease or eradicate the damage already happening. Radiation treatment still harms good tissue; the presence of cancer doesn’t somehow make radiation exposure healthy. But in this awful situation, the damage of radiation can prevent even worse harm from the cancer.

Jesus’ logic on divorce seems similar. He appeals to God’s good, original intent for marriage, seen in the Eden story (Gen. 2:24-25). “Have you not read the Eden story?” Jesus asks the Pharisees. “Married folks are no longer separate individuals,” he says, “but one flesh.” That’s a profound and intimate bond. There’s no clean, painless way to cut a marriage apart. It’s going to hurt—badly. God’s good will is for marriage to continue in love without breaking apart.

The Pharisees reply, “Why then did Moses command [the husband] to give [the wife] a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matt. 19:7). It’s like they’re asking, “If radiation is so bad, then why did God command us to expose ourselves to radiation? Huh?” To this, Jesus would say, “He didn’t command it; he allowed it.”

In the same way, Jesus says that Moses permitted divorce, but he certainly never commanded it. Instead, due to human hard-heartedness, God reveals his will in response to the corruption of human sin. The law in question (from Deut. 24:1-4) aims at limiting further harm done to women in situations where they are likely to face more mistreatment. When a heart has become too calloused and corrupted—or we might say maritally cancerous—then the harm of divorce may be wisely suffered in order to prevent further corruption of life.

“Jesus was not brushing aside Deuteronomy 24:1 and taking a rigorist stance,” says British theologian Charles Cranfield, “but was drawing attention to … the need to distinguish clearly between those elements of the Old Testament law which set forth the perfect will of God … on the one hand, and on the other, those elements which … indicate not God’s perfect, absolute will, but his will in response to the circumstances brought about by human sin.” (2)

Some Pharisees think Jesus is negating Moses’ law, but instead, he reveals something they missed.

Are Divorce and Adultery Connected?

Jesus also addresses divorce and remarriage in two punchy lines from his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31-32) where he seems to conclude that a man who divorces his wife “makes her commit adultery.”

Wow. Really? Unpacking this will help.

We could paraphrase Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 5:31-32 this way: Men, stop harming women by marrying and divorcing flippantly, thinking it’s all good as long as it’s legal. You might think divorce is a convenient way to clear the slate and start fresh, but that’s not possible. It’s brutal, painful, and like radiation treatment, only to be used in dire situations.

In verse 32, Jesus gives his specific warrant for divorce. In the case of porneia—a Greek term that includes “adultery” but more broadly refers to “sexual immorality” (see also Matt. 19:9)—the marriage union is broken.

What exactly does he mean by porneia, though? Pornography? Emotional affairs? Where’s the line? Jesus doesn’t actually clarify, but teaches a basic principle, entrusting people to rely on God’s wisdom for determining the meaning of sexual immorality.

And then, according to many popular translations, Jesus gives a shocking conclusion, “But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery” (Matt. 5:32, NLT).

How can a man who divorces his wife “make” her commit adultery? Does this mean that remarriage after divorce is automatically adulterous? Translations often say as much:

“But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery …” (NASB)

“But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, save for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery …” (KJV).

“But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery …” (ESV).

This “commit adultery” language is unfortunate because Jesus uses a passive verb. The woman is not doing any action. She’s being acted against. So this phrase specifically means that the man “makes her to be adulterated against” (poiei auten moikheuthenai). The woman in view is not being sinful; she’s being harmed.

Here’s the BibleProject translation of Matthew 5:32:

Everyone who sends away his wife—except on the ground of sexual immorality (porneia)—he makes her a victim of adultery (poiei auten moikheuthenai), and whoever marries a sent-away woman, he commits adultery.

Jesus’ words would be highly controversial on this point because, as Bible scholar John Nolland points out, contrary to cultural assumptions, he is saying that a woman could be a “victim of adultery through the action of her husband.” Therefore, Nolland adds, “the man is not creating a clean slate with freedom to remarry; on the contrary, his establishment of a new relationship will be an act of adultery against his spurned wife.” (3)

Jesus does not address other legitimate reasons for divorce and remarriage. His aim is to protect women who are being used and abused, and he is declaring that life in God’s Kingdom protects the vulnerable and ensures just treatment for all.

Especially in cases when the harm of divorce is allowed in order to prevent further harm, women need to be treated as mutual partners and not simply cast off. All of Jesus’ teaching about divorce is aimed at protecting women from men who abuse their social power.

The Wisdom of God from Creation

When the religious experts first challenge Jesus about legal divorce, Jesus challenges them to quit trying to find legal justifications for their own harmful behavior and instead pay attention to the wisdom of God from creation. From the very beginning, Genesis 1:27 declares:

God created humanity (’adam) in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

The one human (that is, the ’adam in Hebrew) becomes two—male and female—so that they can reunite as one flesh. This picture of unity and equality between man and woman is reinforced in Matthew 19:6, “Let no one separate this.”

The Pharisees appeal to Moses’ instruction about divorce, but Jesus reminds them that Moses was giving a concession for the people’s hard-heartedness. It was never God’s will for married couples to divorce, and it isn’t now. But in response to the circumstances brought about by human sin, his will allows for divorce. This is seen in cases that include, but are not limited to, neglect, abuse, and unfaithfulness.

Jesus’ whole interaction with the religious leaders in Matthew 19 gets condensed into a short saying in his Sermon on the Mount, but both teachings offer the same wisdom: God’s intention from the beginning is for men and women to live as co-equal partners. Marriage should never include abuse or neglect, and when it must dissolve to prevent further harm, neither party should take advantage of the other.

Suggested Further Reading:

Remarriage After Divorce in Today's Church: 3 Views / Zondervan, 2009

Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context / Eerdmans, 2002

  1. Jacob Neusner, The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary, vol. 11b (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2011), 404.

  2. C.E.B. Cranfield, "The Matthean Divorce Pericope," in The Bible and Christian Life: A Collection of Essays (T&T Clark: UK, 1985), 229-230.

  3. John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005), 243-244.


Jesus reminds the Pharisees that exceptions for divorce in the Torah are concessions, not commands. Divorce is not God’s will, but some circumstances brought about by sin allow for it, including neglect, abuse, and adultery.

Invite your friends and family to meditate on the teachings of Jesus together.
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