Did Jesus forbid remarriage?
In the Gospel of Mark, Pharisees come to Jesus and ask him: “Can a man divorce a woman?” (Mark 10:1-12) In summing up his answer, Jesus states: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:12) This seems to be a statement that completely denies any legitimacy to divorce and remarriage altogether. But the Gospel of Matthew clarifies that this was not exactly the question asked.
Literally, no Israelite at the time of Jesus thought it possible that the Word of God given through Moses was completely wrong in permitting divorce at all (and they were right!). In fact, no one was debating if divorce was allowed, but rather how liberally (or not) it could be practiced. The Gospel of Mathew provides a fuller version of this question and therefore sets Jesus’ answer in its proper context. According to Mathew’s gospel, some Pharisees tested Jesus by asking him: “Can a man divorce a woman for any reason?” (Mathew 19:3-9)
The Bible is explicit about divorce and remarriage. In the Old Testament, Moses permitted a man to obtain a divorce on just about any grounds.
“If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
Later on, in the New Testament, when Jesus was asked about divorce, He replied that Moses gave permission to divorce because of the hardness of their hearts. He said that in the beginning it was not this way. Jesus continued:
“Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?” So they are no longer two but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).
The conservative Jewish approach understood “unfaithfulness”, “abuse”, or “abandonment” as the only valid grounds for divorce (Deut. 24:1-4; Exod. 21:10-11). This view was represented by the Pharisaic rabbi Shammai, while various more progressive Jewish interpreters argued that a man had the right to divorce his wife for any reason at all (Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 90a). The later view was represented by another Pharisaic rabbi named Hillel.
In other words, there were many illegitimate divorces granted in the Jewish community in the time of Jesus that were not consistent with God’s instructions in the Torah. It is in this divorce-for-any-reason environment Jesus is quoted as saying, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18, Mark 10:12)
If read in 21st century Christian context, it would seem that Jesus forbade all remarriage. If it is read in a first-century Jewish context, Jesus’ statement cannot be interpreted as a blanket statement condemning all remarriage, but only when illegitimate divorce was involved. When Jesus was faced with this question he rejected the idea taught by Pharisees of the house of Hillel (that divorce was permissible for any reason) and sided with both the Pharisees from the house of Shammai and the Essenes who taught the opposite.
Before God, marriage is a lifetime relationship that should never be severed by human action. In the book of Malachi, God says that He hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). God’s perfect will is the preservation of society and future generations by the preservation of marriages. God will give anyone great help in sustaining a marriage relationship or in the reconciliation of estranged marriage partners. In extreme cases, there are only two grounds for divorce and remarriage.
When adultery has taken place, a divorce can be obtained, because adultery has already severed the marriage relationship and divorce is a formal acknowledgment of what has already taken place.
The apostle Paul added to the teachings of Jesus what is called the “Pauline privilege.” According to this concept, Paul taught that if an unbelieving spouse leaves a believer, the believer is not bound to the marriage relationship, but is free to remarry” (1 Corinthians 7:15). And some people recognize such a thing as a “constructive desertion,” which would be when a husband so brutalizes his wife that it is impossible to live with him any longer; or when a wife has so harassed, or brutalized her husband that it becomes impossible for him to stay with her. When that happens, whether or not the person actually moves out, the situation is the equivalent of desertion, and divorce and remarriage are permissible.
Except for these reasons, there is no justification given in the Bible for divorce. No grounds exist for divorce on the basis of incompatibility, lack of love, or differing career goals. Frankly, it seems impossible that two born-again Christians who are dedicated to serving Jesus Christ can find any grounds for divorce.
Obviously, when a person who does not have biblical grounds for divorce remarries, he or she is technically committing adultery.
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