Community Group Study Guide — Jesus’ Teaching on Divorce
In this section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-48), Jesus is showing the gap that exists for most people between their outward actions and inner person. We tend to focus on presenting the “right” outward actions, but neglect to see the inward change needed to be truly righteous (Matthew 5:20). In each of these sections we see Jesus address the Pharisee’s interpretation of the Mosaic Law, but then point to the actual true heart and intent behind it. Each time he moves us beyond just outward obedience to the lowest common denominator to a place of understanding that God desires to make us into new people. For example, it is not just about “not murdering”, but instead being people of love. Likewise, it is not just about “not committing adultery” but becoming people with pure hearts. Matthew 5:31-32 focuses in on the Pharisee’s understanding of divorce and the goodness of marriage.
Matthew 5:31-32 is Jesus’ shortened teaching on divorce and remarriage. Jesus gets straight to the point and addresses the gap in understanding between how the average Pharisee interpreted commands related to divorce compared to the true intent of the Law. It is helpful to go read Matthew 19:1-9 since that passage expands on the general principles that Jesus lays out in Matthew 5:31-32. In both passages Jesus alludes back to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 where Moses wrote that a certificate of divorce could be issued if one found their wife “unfavorable”. At first glance this would seem to allow for a really permissive view of reasons why one could pursue divorce. Does God allow for this? No, and let’s explore what the scripture says about it.
What do we learn when we look at these three passages together? (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:1-9 and Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
First, the Pharisees were more concerned with the question of “how can one get out of a marriage?” than they were with “how can one honor their marriage?”
Jesus appeals to God’s design for marriage in Genesis 2 to be a lasting union between one and one woman to bring joy to each other and glory to God (Matthew 19:4-6). It would appear that the certificate of divorce that the Law of Moses allowed for was a concession and not a command from God. Matthew 19:8 makes this point really clear; Moses allowed for divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, not because it is in God’s design. There are many complicated situations in marriages, which is understandable since marriage is two sinners who make a promise to love each other despite their human brokenness. Yet, approaching marriage with the question in mind of “how can I honor my marriage?” is very different than “how can I get out of my marriage?” Married people will experience ups and downs, times of feeling close and times of feeling distant and they will sin against each other. The Pharisees were really “lax” with their view of why one could “write a certificate of divorce” and they interpreted “unfavorable” from Deuteronomy 24:1 really broadly basically allowing for divorce for almost any reason. Marriage is something God designed for good, even before sin entered creation in Genesis 3. Marriage is something that is worth fighting for and striving to preserve.
Second, Jesus points to the hardness of the human heart and relational consequences of divorce
A close reading of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 tells us that it seems to be prohibiting hasty divorces, abuse of power by husbands who send their wives away for unjust reasons and as you read through the verse you will notice the many “if” clauses showing you a chain of events that would be really really rare.
Jesus, as he comments on the Deuteronomy 24:1-4 informs his hearers that the main reason to “allow” for divorce would be sexual immorality, which is the Greek word “Porneia”. This word implies adultery, fornication and sexual immorality in general as a catch all term. But note that Jesus himself is giving us a concession because of “hardness of heart”. Even in the event of sexual immorality in marriage, which is sin and carries many relational consequences with it, Jesus does not say it is a reason for automatic or mandatory divorce. Forgiveness, reconciliation and practical change can still be pursued and found by the grace of God. So instead of divorce for any reason, Jesus tells us divorce for a limited reason and even then it is a concession.
Jesus also used this as an opportunity to address an abuse of power and injustice. Notice Matthew 5:32, who makes the divorced wife commit adultery? Only the husband had the power to write the certificate of divorce and send his wife away. Likewise, Jesus assumed in the 1st century that a woman would remarry and for good reason, it was near impossible to support yourself as a single woman or single mother in that culture since you were typically unable to get a job. Your only viable option would be to remarry, beg or be a prostitute. Jesus leverages this reality to talk about the issue of abuse of power and injustice. Who causes the divorced woman to commit? The one who issued the certificate of divorce…., the husband. Jesus is not pushing us to be fault finders here, but telling us the reality that regardless of the reason, each and every divorce has unintended fall our and relational consequences.
Finally, what positive things would this passage point followers of Jesus towards?
Many followers of Jesus can prevent divorce and relationship strife before it starts. If marriage is a gift to be protected and stewarded, this should cause us to think about how we are cultivating marriage both in our own marriages and as a faith community.
There are many practical things one can do:
Pray for humility in your own heart so you’d be open to personal change, growth in Christ and growth in your relationship with your spouse. Pray for marriages in your church community. Regularly invite people close to you to offer correction around areas of sin in your life. Be quick to forgive and slow to anger. Spend time with marriage mentor couples. Incorporate regular time with your spouse to build your affection.
Likewise there are many questions you can ask yourself surrounding marriage:
If you are single, are you living in a way that would prepare you for marriage if the Lord leads you to that? For example, are you pursuing purity, spending time with people in God honoring marriages and helping to find opportunities to support families that God has placed in your life?
If you are married, do you have regular practices in your marriage to build and strengthen your relationship with your spouse? Do you protect your relationship from sexual temptation and the crossing of emotional boundaries? Likewise, do you invest in younger/newer marriages to help them grow and do you invite singles into your life as a family to model marriage?
The list can go on, but the point is we ought to avoid the trap of the Pharisees and see easy outs when things get tough and we ought to consider how to treasure and cultivate our marriage and marriages in our community.
God designed marriage as a permanent union between a man and a woman meant to glorify God. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day had twisted a concession from the Law of Moses to justify divorce for any reason. Jesus instead allows for divorce for a limited circumstance but still points us away from seeking divorce because of the damage it can cause. The people of God should treasure marriage, seek opportunity to strengthen it and pursue reconciliation when there is conflict.
At your community group:
Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.
How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week?
Read Matthew 5:31-32 and Matthew 19:4-9
What does Jesus appeal to as his reason for why one should not pursue divorce quickly?
Jesus tells the Pharisees that Moses allowed for divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) because of hardness of heart. How does one develop a hard heart and are there steps to take to prevent getting to that place?
Spend time in your group reading Ephesians 5:22-33. Explore these questions: what does a God honoring marriage look like? What does a God honoring marriage picture? What are some steps followers of Jesus can take to pursue this kind of relationship? (You can think about things that have worked in your marriage or ways you have been intentionally preparing for marriage. Also, The study guide gave a small list of examples either discuss those or think about other ones that can help positively shape one’s marriage).