Matthew 5.31-32 — We CANNOT Make RULES from this Text

The first ground rule I have to lay down is that we KNOW that what Jesus says in Matthew CANNOT contradict what Deuteronomy says, since the Bible does not contradict itself. We can at least start from that premise. If you haven’t read the study on Dt. 24.1-4, do that to get a base.


OK, now let’s understand our context of Matthew 5 clearly. These two verses are part of the Sermon on the Mount, and specifically part of the “you have heard it said…but I say unto you” sequences. It’s more than fair to say that none of these particular sayings of Jesus are meant to establish the rules, or the laws, about something. They were never meant to be incorporated into the social and legal code of Israel, or of our Christian lives. If they were, we better figure out how to legislate anger and lust, the two listed before this one, or laws about cheek-turning and coat giving. Understand? This was never intended to create a rule for us to follow. The context makes that CERTAIN.

Instead, we see that these sayings are all first about the rules, and then about the proper motive behind our actions. The law can deal with acts of sin, and Jesus is not saying the law (murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, justice) doesn’t count any more, or that we don’t follow it. But he IS saying to us that we’ll never get to heaven by our acts of human righteousness. All of these examples are framed by “your righteousness must surpass that of the Pharisees” in v. 20 at the beginning, and “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness to be seen by men” in 6.1 at the end. Get it? What Jesus is teaching about is that having a proper heart before God counts far more than obeying the rules of the law. So THAT’S what our divorce section HAS to be about, and we have to study it with that understanding.

So, let’s begin. “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ ” Whoa, it’s our quote from Dt. 24.1-4, which is about having a just cause for divorce and going through the legal system, and the rules about remarriage. Jesus is not taking that away, just as he’s not taking away the laws about murder and adultery and oaths and vengeance. What was going on in their society was they were taking this text and making divorce easy—that a person could get a divorce because their spouse burned the toast, or such things. Jesus is telling us that what matters more than the rules is the motives and the condition of the heart. Divorce too often comes from self-centeredness, selfishness, lust, and an unwillingness to be sacrificial in your love, and that was a deplorable reason to get divorced, in Jesus’ teaching. The righteousness of the Pharisees was a system of abuse built around a questionable law. Jesus was demanding a righteousness built on morality and attitudes of godliness founded on patience, kindness, love, etc. God wants to remove anger, lust, and the unwillingness to forgive and be forgiven that leads to divorce.

Again, we cannot make RULES from this text. Christian ethics in a fallen world will always be subject to tensions. Sinful situations sometimes make it impossible to live out the ideal, and in such cases we may have to choose between options, none of which leave no room for no regret. What is important is that in so doing we do not lose sight of God’s ideal, and that we accept the “lesser evil” for what it is—an evil—even when it may be the best course open to us in the circumstances.

On to the “biggy” phrase: “anyone who divorces…except for marital unfaithfulness causes her to become an adulteress.” Remember, Jesus is NOT setting up a rule. It’s totally inconsistent with the context.


The word “marital unfaithfulness” is “porneias”. It is often used of sexual unfaithfulness, (it is NOT their word for adultery), and is also often used figuratively of unfaithfulness (infidelity) to God. In Revelation (2.14; 9.21; chapters 17-19), porneia  is used as a comprehensive term for utter degeneracy.

Now, I’m not trying to minimize the strength of defining this word as sexual sin, but in the CONTEXT of Matthew 5, it makes far more sense to me, since Jesus is NOT establishing a rule but is instead talking about the godly heart, that his use of the word is to emphasize unfaithfulness of heart, and degeneracy. So what Jesus is saying is that, in an oh-so-similar fashion to his previous two sayings about murder and adultery, “You’re familiar with the law about divorce. But what really matters is your heart and your motives. If you divorce without cause and for reasons that aren’t considering the heart of God, then you’re just increasing sin and bringing about adultery on top of it all.”

Also notice in v. 32 that remarriage was assumed. If Jesus acknowledged the propriety of divorce when “unfaithfulness” took place, he also gave similar acquiescence to the propriety of remarriage in such a case.

Am I trying to play loose with the text? Not at all. The context demands my understanding of it. The point is the same as Dt. 24.1-4; it’s not a contradiction. There HAS to be lawful cause that comes from a spiritually-attuned heart. We don’t live under the law, but under grace: the law of the heart and Christ-likeness. But let’s also not play loose with the text: Jesus is not condoning divorce. Divorce is always the last option in a world of very real problems and twisted hearts.

2 thoughts on “Matthew 5.31-32 — We CANNOT Make RULES from this Text”

  1. Can we assume matthew5.31-32 that when it speaks of a wife and marital unfaithfulness that also means a husband doing the same?

    1. Yes, we most certainly can assume that Jesus is speaking to everyone involved. The Sermon on the Mount is basically Jesus’s manifesto for His kingdom of God under the new covenant. There is no way he’d exclude men from sexual purity. The point of the text is that marriage is supposed to be indissoluble, though they do fail. But divorce should never be for trite matters (Hey, I found someone I like or love better, and I don’t want you any more), and this applies to both men and women. Jesus’s teaching is about motives, desires, and the condition of one’s heart—and that applies to both men and women. God is concerned that our hearts are in tune with His heart, and that applies to both men and women.

      Charles Erdman writes, “The securing of a divorce cannot justify an act that is contrary to moral law. No mere decree of a court can make right that which is in itself impure. To divorce an innocent wife or a husband and then to marry another, no matter what the civil law may declare, is a breach of the moral law which cannot be allowed in a follower of Christ.”

      I’m sure Jesus expresses His thought this way because Jewish practice ascribed to the husband the one-sided and arbitrary right to divorce that simply requires that he give his wife a bill of divorce. The abuses of the day were most often on the part of the husband. But His teaching, and the entire context of the Sermon on the Mount, shows us that He’s talking about the hearts of all of us.

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